Cora Hobbs-Jackson was just trying to be a good neighbor in February 2015. In return, the Lansing Board of Water & Light burned her house down. And they don’t have to pay her a dime for it.
Feb. 22 was a frigid day, Hobbs-Jackson’s next door neighbor on West Michigan Avenue had no water because the subzero temperature had frozen the water pipes.
Two women from the BWL knocked on her door and asked permission to hook a hose up to her outside faucet to aid her neighbor. Initially, she declined, according to a transcript of a deposition on file at the Ingham County Circuit Court. But then she reconsidered and called the employees back.
She didn’t pay much more attention to the issue that day. She went to Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek and stayed overnight.
“When I left my house on the 22nd, my house was standing,” she said. “When I got here, my whole house was in the back burnt up. It’s been rough. It’s truly been rough.”
An urgent call from her brother summoned her back to Lansing on the 23rd. She arrived to find the street she called home for 43 years filled with emergency vehicles.
According to three separate investigations into the fire, one from the BWL, one from the fire marshal and a third from an independent investigator hired by the BWL, the two employees returned to her home on Feb. 23 because the neighbor’s water was not flowing again. After a child in the neighbor’s home had turned off the water, the hose between the two homes froze.
That’s when Hobbs-Jackson’s good deed was punished: A BWL employee using a torch to thaw the garden spigot set the house on fire.
When it was over, the 116-year-old home was a total loss.
On Saturday, Hobbs-Jackson, 67, stood in the empty lot where her home once stood. She told of raising her three sons in the neighborhood. “A good neighborhood. A nice neighborhood,” she said.
She and her husband, Alex, her high school sweetheart from Mississippi, bought the house in 1975, after renting in Lansing since their arrival in 1970. She worked at Sparrow, he for GM. They paid the house off within 12 years, she said with pride. Alex died in the home in 2006.
Gesturing about the empty lot, she spoke of improvements she’d made. A new roof. A new driveway. Granite top counters in the kitchen. New carpeting throughout.
A Google Streetview image of the house from 2011 shows a bright white home with bright blue trim and a tidy yard surrounded by a low chain link fence. All that is gone now. Five tulips in what was her back garden are all that remain.
Those fire investigation reports and court records show that on Feb. 23, an 18-year-old employee of BWL named Selena Gomez set to work freeing the frozen hose from the back of Hobbs-Jackson’s home. She used a blowtorch to thaw the spigot. The only training she had received on how to use the torch consisted of being told not to point the flame of the torch at the house, she testified in her deposition.
The torch had ignited the materials behind the siding above the spigot, investigation reports and the BWL’s attorney, Pamela Dausman, agreed. The fire spread quickly. After thawing out the spigot. Gomez returned to her work truck for a new hose. When she returned, she noticed a crackling sound behind the siding. When she peeked behind the siding around the spigot, the interior was red. She attempted to douse the embers by splashing water into the small hole. Then she noticed flames in the kitchen. She called her coworker and 9-1-1. She was advised to move away from the home and await emergency crews. BWL supervisors arrived and sent Gomez and her co-worker back to headquarters to be evaluated on their fitness for duty. Gomez was sent home.
Jackson-Hobbs said that a customer service manager at the BWL told her he was “gonna make it right,” she said. “He kept calling me: "'Mama, we gonna make it right for you. Mama ,we sorry this done happened.’'" But none of those promises materialized. Hobbs-Jackson was able to get a $115,300 settlement from her insurance company. According to court records, she was still out at least $110,978 in expenses, including demolition of her home, a month's hotel stay, new furnishings and upgrades on her new home and losses not covered by the insurance.
Despite assurances the utility would “make it right” and concessions in court pleadings that the fire had been the fault of their employee, BWL clammed up and refused to pay up, according a lawsuit she filed.
BWL spokesman Steve Serkiain declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but he disputed Hobbs-Jackson’s characterization of the utility’s assistance to her.
“When the incident occurred, the BWL expressed the unfortunate nature of the incident and provided Ms. Jackson with temporary hotel accommodations, in addition to other amenities at the BWL’s cost, as things got underway with Ms. Jackson’s insurance carrier,” Serkiain wrote in an email. “It is our understanding that Ms. Jackson’s insurance carrier honored its policy and provided her with the means to purchase a new home in this unfortunate situation.”
He said the utility paid $1,639.24 for hotel, food and “other” expenses.
However, in a response to questions from the BWL found in the circuit court file, Hobbs-Jackson’s attorney, Michael Behan, cited an unresolved cost of $2,670 in hotel expenses that neither the insurance company nor BWL paid.
The lawsuit alleges negligence and gross negligence against both the BWL and Gomez. In response, the BWL claimed they had governmental immunity.
On March 22, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo agreed, in part, with BWL. He found that the utility was performing a governmental function at the time of the fire and therefore was immune from damages. But Gomez was still on the hook.
“There are some facts that could be interpreted that in this circumstance, the way this happened, that for that moment under these circumstances the employee lacked concern, or her conduct was such to demonstrate some sufficient level of disregard for whether an injury results that a fact-finder could that that there was gross negligence,” Jamo ruled from the bench, according to a hearing transcript in the court files. That means Gomez could be held liable for all the damages Hobbs-Jackson is seeking.
The BWL is appealing that decision in an effort to cover Gomez with the government immunity.
Meanwhile, Jackson-Hobbs is trying to pick up the pieces and move on. She’s in a new home on the city’s south side, miles from her church and her neighborhood. But she’s also fighting with City Hall. While waiting for the insurance payment to come through, her property was cited by Code Compliance officials for trash and debris. She said the notice of the violation was delivered to the mailbox of her red-tagged home on West Michigan. And she thought the debris and trash — all the result of the fire — could have been collected when the demolition happened. City officials thought differently.
She said the day before the demolition happened, city contractors showed up and hauled away the debris she had been cited for. The city charged her $1,844 for the service, and when she didn’t pay, it tagged it onto her property taxes. Those taxes and fees have been referred to the county for collection, and if she doesn’t pay up, she could lose the empty lot.
“It’s truly has been rough but I get through it,” she said as surveyed her empty lot with resignation.
“I’ll get through it.”