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Lawsuits filed by building owner, victim's family in Old Montreal fire that killed 7

A lawsuit has been filed by the owner of an Old Montreal building where seven people perished in a fire last March. The search continues Monday, March 27, 2023, at the scene of a fire in a heritage building in Old Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — A pair of lawsuits have been filed in connection with a fire in an Old Montreal heritage building that killed seven people in March, including a suit by the owner of the property who is demanding $7.6 million from the city.

Emile Benamor's lawyers say city regulations for heritage properties made it impossible for him to carry out modifications or repairs to the building, which was built in 1890. The lawyers filed the lawsuit last Thursday, a few weeks after Montreal police said they had found traces of accelerant at the site of the fire and that the case had turned into a criminal investigation. 

"Due to its heritage status, the building is strongly regulated, as well as the work authorized on it, including the fact that certain work is completely impossible to carry out, in particular due to the city, which refuses any modification or alteration that is visible in relation to the original heritage construction," the lawsuit says.

The door to the building, the lawsuit alleges, did not meet fire safety regulations. But the door, which is more than 100 years old and made of wood several inches thick, had heritage value and could not be modified or replaced, the suit alleges.

Traces of accelerants were found in the entrance corridor, the filing says, citing expert reports. Police said in late August they had found traces of accelerant at the site, but did not specify where.

The lawsuit also alleges an emergency stairwell leading to the roof and allowing people access to the building next door was ordered dismantled. "Once again, it was impossible for the plaintiff to modify the staircase in such a way as to satisfy the city and the only solution presented to him was to remove the part giving access to the roof."

Benamor's lawsuit says city safety inspections had not been conducted since February 2019.

The suit also alleges firefighters did not deploy adequate resources to the March 16 fire and dismissed him when he told them minutes after the fire started that there were very likely people inside the building. 

The owner is also suing city officials — including the mayor — for defamation for comments they made in the aftermath of the blaze. Mayor Valérie Plante's alleged attempt to link the case to illegal short-term rentals triggered a "witch hunt" against Benamor, the lawsuit says.

"Several of the statements reported by the city's employees, representatives or agents were false, inaccurate and aimed to hold the plaintiff responsible for the events, including the injuries and deaths that resulted from them," the filing reads.

Meanwhile, the parents and younger brother of Charlie Lacroix, an 18-year-old victim of the fire, filed a $1.5-million lawsuit Friday against Benamor, the City of Montreal and a man operating rentals out of the building. The lawsuit argues that the death occurred because of gross negligence on the parties all named.

"The fire and Charlie's death will leave an indelible mark on everyone's heart of the claimants, who will have to live everyday with the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one," the filing reads. 

For it's part, the City of Montreal declined to comment on either lawsuit. 

In addition to Lacroix, the other victims were Camille Maheux, 76; An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Nathan Sears, 35; and Walid Belkahla, 18. Maheux was a long-term resident of the building; the others were staying in short-term rentals.

In March, the father of Sears filed an application for a $22-million class-action lawsuit against Benamor, short-term rental platform Airbnb, and the man who had been operating rentals out of the building. The class-action lawsuit, which is on behalf of the families and estates of all the fire’s victims, has not been approved, and one of the lawyers in the case said an authorization wouldn't be likely before the summer of 2024.

A coroner’s inquest ordered into the fire is on hold until the conclusion of the police investigation and any potential criminal trials.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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