COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two new lawsuits have been filed against the Columbia Housing Authority: one by the family of a man who died at the Allen Benedict Court apartments, and another by a person staying there who had to be hospitalized.
It's the latest development in the ongoing crisis at the public housing units.
The lawsuits were filed at the Richland County Courthouse Friday. One was by the mother of 30-year-old Derrick Roper, who was found dead inside the J Building on the property on January 17, 2019. The other was by Robert Ballard, who had a unit right beside Roper in the J building and had to be rushed to the hospital to seek medical treatment.
The Roper lawsuit is a wrongful death case, while the Ballard one is a personal injury suit, since he survived. They're both represented by attorneys Robert Stanley and Thelma Jones-Walker of Columbia.
In the lawsuits, both plaintiffs claim the Housing Authority knew or should have known about the potentially toxic conditions found on the property. The suits say gas, carbon monoxide, and cyanide were leaking into units, and yet nothing was done.
Columbia Housing Authority attorney and former mayor Bob Coble sent a statement in response to the lawsuits.
"The Columbia Housing Authority will review and address this law suit in the appropriate way with the South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund. Again, we deeply regret the loss of life," Coble wrote to WLTX.
An inspection made by the Columbia Fire Department on January 18 found unsafe levels of carbon monoxide in the units and multiple gas leaks throughout the property. The Richland County Coroner concluded Roper and another man staying in the J Building, 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr., both died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"The defendant, by its acts or omissions, was negligent, grossly negligent, careless, reckless, willful, and wanton," the suits say.
According to the suits, the Authority didn't properly inspect or repair the units, and also didn't install carbon monoxide detectors, failing in their responsibility as landlords. (Gilbert Walker, the Housing Authority CEO, has since said detectors will be installed at all other properties).
As a result of the problem, the entire property was permanently abandoned, with a total of 411 residents evacuated from the units. Those people were put into temporary housing across the city, and are being given vouchers to find a permanent replacement to their old homes.
A separate class action lawsuit has been filed by two other residents at Allen Benedict Court, which also claims more should have been done to protect the residents.
The Columbia Police Department says they are still probing the deaths, and the Columbia Housing Authority has called for an independent probe as well.