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Posted on Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 6:25 p.m.

Lawsuit filed in fatal fire on South State Street in Ann Arbor

By Lee Higgins

The family of a man killed in a house fire in Ann Arbor last year has filed a lawsuit alleging that the property owner's negligence contributed to the man's death.

The estate of 22-year-old Renden LeMasters of Dexter is suing Vessels LLC, which the suit says owned the home at 928 S. State St., where a fire broke out April 3, 2010, killing LeMasters and injuring two other people.


Ann Arbor fire officials said they never determined the cause of the blaze, but found no evidence it was anything but accidental. The 5:30 a.m. fire started in a trash container on the front porch, investigators said, spread to an upholstered sofa, and then to the house.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 23 in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, alleges that Vessels LLC was negligent in one or more of the following ways, including failing to install and maintain operational smoke detectors, failing to have a proper fire escape plan or failing to have a working fire extinguisher. The suit seeks an unspecified amount of money.

Also named as defendants are The Greater Huron Valley Investment Corp and Metro Property Services, which the suit lists as property managers.

LeMasters was a student at Eastern Michigan University. The suit says LeMasters and his estate suffered damages including emotional pain, wrongful death and funeral expenses.

Dennis Vessels, who is listed in the lawsuit as being affiliated with Vessels LLC, could not be reached for comment.

As a result of the fire, the Ann Arbor City Council passed an ordinance later that year, banning upholstered couches on porches.

Lee Higgins covers crime and courts for He can be reached by phone at (734) 623-2527 and email at



Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 4:34 p.m.

I am a landlord. Here is my view: This was a terrible tragedy. The number one thing that could have prevented this death was having the "couch ban" in place at that time. It wasn't yet because of a lot of opposition. Upholstered furniture burns fast, and having it on the porch blocks the main escape route. The City does inspect all rental properties every two and a half years. They are pretty thorough, especially regarding safety issues. Smoke detectors are important and required. We have put in a lot of hard-wired interconnected systems. We used to see too many smoke detectors with the batteries removed. Fire extinguishers also can make a difference, but how often are they going to be used by tenants escaping a major fire. Should the city or the university develop an educational program for tenants (and residents) on fire safety, including instruction in the use of a fire extinguisher, planning an escape route, and fire prevention tips? I can't see landlords individually teaching their tenants, but a more systematic approach could help reduce future fire damage and maybe save lives. A side note: Washtenaw County courts heavily favor tenants over landlords, but that is not the issue here.


Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 1:08 a.m.

This was a tragedy but isn't it a tenant responsibility to ensure the smoke detectors are working and providing a fire extinguisher wouldn't be a landlord responsibility either. Doesn't Ann Arbor inspect rental homes on an annual basis? If the home passed inspection according to laws and codes I would suspect a strong defense. As to an escape plan, I would also think that would be a tenant responsibility because different plans suit different needs. It seems all these issues would fall under tenant responsibility to me.


Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 4:04 a.m.

Thanks useless, good to know. How do you handle checking the smoke detector on a monthly basis to ensure it's functional? Or is there a different mandated time frame for checking it? Does Ann Arbor follow the same program?


Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 2:28 a.m.

As a landlord in Ypsilanti, it is the Landlord's responsibility to provide working smoke detectors and a working fire extinguisher (not hidden in a basement or closet), and that is the first thing the inspector looks for. I am unaware of the need to have an escape plan.

Michigan Reader

Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 12:35 a.m.

The estate is trying to get at the insurance money. This will probably be settled out of court. I think when the Washtenaw County Courts favor the landlords, it's in eviction/non-payment of rent type situations.

Michigan Reader

Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 12:36 a.m.

The property insurance money of the owners, I mean.


Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 12:14 a.m.

Washtenaw County courts favor landlords. They will probably have to appeal.


Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 12:12 a.m.

If the charges are correct: "failing to install and maintain operational smoke detectors, failing to have a proper fire escape plan or failing to have a working fire extinguisher" then it's about time some of these slumlords around AA are finally sued. I'm sorry to hear it came after someone's life was tragically lost. However, there are so many of these slumlords allowing rental properties to deteriorate and the city simply does not enforce the codes. During grad school, I lived in a house on the old west side that had squirrels living in the attic running around between the floors of the building, bats that entered in spaces around the eves and around poorly insulated windows, and a dirt floor in the basement/laundry room. It was appalling. As I was moving out, the upper apartment plumbing flooded and water was pouring down through a ceiling light fixture in my bedroom, which wasn't considered an emergency by the landlord. It's just incredible what these slumlords get away with in AA. Finally one is getting sued.

Peter Jameson

Wed, Dec 7, 2011 : 7:36 a.m.

but you have to understand...attorneys can make up whatever lies they want to begin with. proving it is the hard part