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Widow, former wife suing in death of two firefighters

They say eatery was negligent

Firefighter Paul J. Cahill, 55, of Scituate was the father of three children. Firefighter Paul J. Cahill, 55, of Scituate was the father of three children.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 12, 2008

The widow of one of two Boston firefighters killed in a West Roxbury restaurant blaze in August and the former wife of the other are going to Suffolk Superior Court to contend that excessive grease build-up that fueled the fatal fire was a result of negligent maintenance of the restaurant's kitchen exhaust system.

Anne H. Cahill, widow of Paul J. Cahill, filed suit yesterday against the restaurant, Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese; the restaurant's grease-cleaning service, J&B Cleaning of Roslindale; and the company that owns the building on Centre Street, Continental Realty LLC of West Roxbury.

Cheryl Payne, the former wife of Warren J. Payne, plans to file a nearly identical suit within days, her Boston-based lawyer, Gregory A. Connly, said yesterday.

The women contend that the three companies knew or should have known that grease build-up in the kitchen exhaust pipe had seeped into the kitchen ceiling and created a fire hazard. The grease ignited in a massive fireball on Aug. 29, killing Payne, 53, a father of two from Newton, and Cahill, 55, a father of three from Scituate.

"Property owners have a duty to firefighters, just like they have a duty to me and you, to maintain their property, to maintain it reasonably; and this created an unreasonable risk of harm," Connly said. "Firefighters don't go into buildings that blow up. They go into buildings that are on fire, and this building blew up."

Cahill's Boston-based lawyer, Neil Sugarman, said a jury will determine what judgment, if any, is appropriate. Under state law, plaintiffs in negligence cases do not request a specific amount of money, he said.

"This was an extraordinary tragedy for the widow and her family, and hopefully by bringing this lawsuit there will be some resolution to the family's suffering," Sugarman said.

"At its simplest," he added, "we believe this was a fire that could have been and should have been prevented."

Representatives of Tai Ho and J&B Cleaning could not be reached. Messages left with Continental Realty were not returned.

After the fire, the owners of Tai Ho gave city officials a receipt indicating that J&B Cleaning, which the restaurant had hired to clean its grease, did not clean the kitchen exhaust pipe.

The receipt says J&B staff worked in the kitchen and climbed onto the roof to clean an exhaust fan. But it does not say they cleaned the crucial area in between, - where fire officials say the grease was leaking.

Shortly after the fire, questions were raised about the deaths when two government officials told the Globe that autopsy reports indicated that Payne had traces of cocaine in his system and that Cahill had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit for drivers in Massachusetts.

David W. White Jr., president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said that the defendants will probably cite the reports to argue that Payne and Cahill contributed to their own death.

"There's always an attempt to blame the victim," said Jeffrey N. Catalano, a Boston lawyer who is chairman of the state bar association's civil litigation section. "But I know from my experience of fire cases that fires happen very rapidly, and people's ability to respond is limited many times, and fear plays a factor in that. And it has nothing to do with what's in their system or isn't in their system. People can be trapped in a fire very quickly."

Sugarman said the report would not affect his case. Connly said an investigation in March by Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley found that "nothing about the toxicology results contributed," to the firefighters' deaths, which were caused by the fireball. Connly also said he would order an independent toxicology test.

Negligence cases involving firefighters are not unusual.

Sugarman helped win $19.5 million for 11 firefighters injured in a 1993 blaze at the H.C. Stark chemical company in Newton. Sugarman said he argued in that case that the company failed to warn firefighters that they were in a room with pools of water, which splashed onto metallic sodium and caused an explosion.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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