Landlord jailed over near-fatal bedsit blaze

This article was first published in the SHP magazine  and is reproduced in its entirity with all credit to IOSH and SHP.

A Suffolk landlord has been jailed for two-and-a-half years after a tenant was practically baked alive in a fire at one of his properties in Norwich.

Nineteen-year-old Layla Skalli suffered 80-per-cent deep-tissue burns and was given a less than one-per-cent chance of survival following the blaze, on 14 April 2009. Virtually all the skin below her neck was destroyed by the intense 600-degree radiant heat, and only pioneering skin-grafting techniques saved her life.

The landlord of the flat, which was situated above a mobile phone shop in Magdalen Street, Norwich, was Michael Billings, who owns hundreds of properties in and round East Anglia. Following a multi-agency investigation involving the HSE, Norfolk Police, Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, and Norwich City Council, Billings appeared before the city’s Crown Court on 7 May to answer a catalogue of charges in relation to the blaze.

The court head that the fire broke out in the early hours of the morning and quickly became a raging inferno, with tenants in three adjoining properties lucky to escape the blaze. Fire crews rescued a woman living in a second-floor apartment above Miss Skalli’s flat as she prepared to jump for her life.  Other tenants climbed down a drainpipe to escape.

The teenager was unable to escape because her sash window could only be opened by four inches and the staircase was blocked by thick black smoke. Investigating HSE inspector John Claxton told SHP that Miss Skalli would have been disoriented and rendered unconscious by noxious fumes. He explained: “When the fire started, it burnt the carpet and a sofa, which produced thick, acrid smoke. This was toxic and narcotic – so much so that when she was tested in hospital, Layla had 33-per-cent carbon monoxide in her blood. At 40 per cent, you are dead.”

Fire-fighters had to use their ladder as a battering ram to smash the window and climb inside, where they found Miss Skalli lying unconscious on the floor with her hands covering her face, the only part of her not burnt by the intense heat. The fire-fighter who carried her down the ladder described her body as being so hot his arms were beginning to burn through his tunic.

The incident was treated as a potential manslaughter case but the multi-agency investigation was unable to determine the cause of the blaze conclusively.

In all, Billings was indicted on 14 counts, including:

  • nine under art.32(1) of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for failing to take suitable fire precautions to ensure the safety of his tenants;
  • four under s3(2) of the HSWA 1974, for failing, in his capacity as a self-employed landlord of a tenanted property, to ensure that persons not in his employment were not exposed to risks to their health and safety; and
  • one under reg.36 of the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 to ensure relevant appliances and flues were adequately checked and maintained for safety.

The court heard Billings failed to provide even the most basic protection for his tenants, such as fitting a working fire-alarm system, installing the correct number of fire doors, or providing adequate means of escape. The gas appliances in the flats above the shop had not been serviced or properly inspected.

The landlord pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Judge Paul Downes to 30 months’ in prison. In an unusual twist, Billings was originally ordered to pay £40,000 in costs (although the actual costs of the muti-agency investigation ran to £102,000) but following representations by the HSE, Judge Downes said he would review the sentence if Billings paid Miss Skalli £20,000 as a show of remorse.

The judge said that following a recent practice direction from the higher courts dissuading the lower courts from getting involved in “civil” matters, he was unable to make a compensation order. Billings had, in mitigation, expressed his remorse over what happened to Miss Skalli so the judge suggested the £20,000 payment as a gesture of true remorse. SHP understands that Billings’ defence team is currently considering whether or not to make the payment, as the judge would not be drawn on how much it would result in the sentence being cut.

After sentencing Layla’s brother, Andrew Skalli, said: “The actions of Michael Billings have ruined my sister’s life. We want to remind every landlord that they have a legal and moral obligation to the safety of their tenants, something Billings gave no thought to – hence why he has been sentenced today.

“But no amount of time in prison could make up for the pain he has caused my sister and my family. Despite this we remain grateful to the people who made this prosecution possible and hope it helps save other lives.”

Inspector Claxton said: “Michael Billings failed in his basic duties as a landlord and those failures nearly cost the life of a young woman. As it is, Layla Skalli has been left with both physical and emotional scars that will never completely heal. A year on, she requires pain relief and will need further surgery in the future.”

He added: “The vast majority of landlords endeavour to comply with the law and thus have nothing to fear, as the regulator is always available to give advice. Those who choose not to comply should be aware that the various agencies will cooperate and work together to rigorously enforce the law, and this is an outcome that such landlords should fear.”

Commenting on the agencies cooperation in this case, Richard Herrell, group manager at Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service, said: “This is the first time the fire and rescue service in Norfolk has worked on a joint operation of this kind with the Health and Safety Executive, Norfolk Constabulary and Norwich City Council. This partnership approach proved to be hugely effective in what was a complex and difficult case.

“This case has never been about interfering public bodies checking up on people for the sake of it: it’s been about ensuring all properties where people live are safe.”

Following this case, the HSE announced the launch of a new website containing all the information landlords need to meet their legal duties on domestic gas. The micro-site was developed with support from the National Landlords Association (NLA) and is described as a one-stop-shop to help landlords understand what they should be doing to keep tenants safe in any properties they let. It contains information on repair and maintenance, annual gas safety checks and record-keeping, and provides answers to frequently asked questions.

Said Peter Brown, the head of the HSE’s Work Environment, Radiation and Gas Division: “Tenants should quite rightly expect that their landlords are taking all necessary steps to ensure that gas appliances are safe. Though there are legal duties on landlords, meeting them shouldn’t be an onerous task. The new website provides all the information landlords need in one place.”

Visit the new website at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/gas/landlords