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Residents in North Austin apartment fire suing companies that own, manage building

The lawsuit states the building did not have working alarms, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or sprinklers.

AUSTIN, Texas — A group of residents who lived at a North Austin apartment complex that burned down earlier this month are now suing the owner and operator of the complex for negligence and gross negligence. 

According to a lawsuit brought by five residents, companies that own and operate the Ventura Apartments are owned by the same person and failed to protect the residents living at the complex. The lawsuit claims the apartment had no working alarms, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, or sprinklers, as managing companies failed to install or maintain them.

"In fact, these entities had inspected the property and conducted due diligence on the Ventura Apartments' fire-readiness and either knew the community was ill-equipped to respond to fired or willfully neglected their responsibility to determine the complex's fire-readiness and take reasonable steps to address deficiencies," the lawsuit alleged. 

RELATED: Dozens displaced by apartment complex fire in North Austin

David Bergen an attorney at The Buzbee Law Firm and Charles Bush, the owner at Bush and Bush Law Group, are representing the plaintiffs. In a Zoom interview Friday they said if the complex had working alarms or sprinklers it could have alerted those who were sleeping when the fire started. 

"What the defendants did here was they placed profits over safety. And whenever you cut corners and you decide to save a quick buck, sometimes it leads to disastrous consequences and that's what we had happen here," Bergen said.

In addition to the lawsuit, they are asking for a restraining order to preserve what's left. The attorneys want their own team to investigate the fire. 

"This could have been prevented if the right safety precautions had been put in place and they simply weren't," Bush said. 

The Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County EMS responded to the three-alarm fire at the Ventura Apartments early Jan. 7. Crews arrived to the complex at 9133 Northgate Blvd. and found the building engulfed in flames and rescued residents trapped in their apartments. 

A total of four patients were taken to Austin hospitals with injures and four additional patients refused transport.

More than 30 residents were displaced from all 40 units at the complex. More than 100 firefighters battled the flames, which caused $1.25 million in damage. 

AFD later said in an update that the cause of the fire will remain undetermined due to the massive destruction. 

The lawsuit named two companies owned by James R. Gatlin that have controlling shares of the company that owns the apartment complex. He is described as a "wealthy real estate mogul who boasts that he owns more than 30,000 united with multifamily assets totaling more than $1 billion."

Gatlin reached out to KVUE, claiming that the lawsuit is not correct and that he does not own the property.

Read the full lawsuit here.

According to the suit, a 60-year-old plaintiff remains in the hospital and has undergone "numerous" surgeries and skin grafts after being forced to jump from the widow of his second-story unit. His wife, a 58-year-old woman who is also a plaintiff, also jumped from the second story. Another plaintiff's infant son was reportedly rushed to the hospital and placed on a ventilator for days and was hospitalized for more than a week with severe smoke inhalation and other injuries, per the suit. 

The defendants "breached their duty of care owed" to the apartment complex residents by failing to maintain fire alert and suppression equipment, failing to manage and supervise employees, ignoring the conditions that contributed to the fire and more, the lawsuit stated. 

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are asking for $25 million to cover damages, medical expenses, and more. They are also asking for $10 million in exemplary damages.

KVUE has reached out to apartment management. This story will be updated if a statement is received.

Update Feb. 2, 2022: This story has been updated to clarify that James Gatlin does not directly own the apartment complex impacted, but has controlling shares in companies that own the company in charge of the complex.

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