Sunday 17 December 2017

HSE denies negligence in putting vulnerable woman into house which was set on fire

Tim Healy

THE HSE denies it was negligent when a house it provided for an allegedly volatile and vulnerable young woman was set on fire shortly after she was told she was to be evicted for anti-social behaviour.

The owner of an adjoining property damaged by the September 30, 2005, fire in Athlone, Co Westmeath, is suing the HSE/Child and Family Agency claiming it was negligent because it knew the woman allegedly had a propensity for criminal conduct.

The case is also against the landlord who rented the house to the HSE.

The owner of the adjoining house claims both defendants failed to change the locks which as a result the woman got back into the dwelling and a party took place during which one of the party-goers set the property on fire.

The High Court heard she is claiming €40,000 for repairs and loss of contents to her own house which she has been out of since the fire.

She is also claiming for the cost of renting an alternative home since then.

The claims are denied.

The defendants say there was nothing they could have done to prevent the person who set fire to the house because it was broken into after the keys were handed back. 

The arsonist, a minor who was never charged, also admitted setting fire to a Vincent de Paul premises in Athlone that same night, the court heard.

The HSE also says that because the woman, referred to in court as "Ms X", was over 18, its control over her was limited.  It says she was a vulnerable young woman who was more at risk of self-harm rather than harm to others.

The court heard Ms X came from a deeply troubled background with a history of substance abuse.  She had  been, before getting the house,  in a number of care homes from which she absconded.  After the fire, she went back into residential care.

She moved into the house in early September 2005 but before long, the landlord became aware of a number of complaints from neighbours about noise from the house.  

The landlord also went to replace a light bulb in the house and was taken aback by the state of the house which included lipstick graffiti on the walls.

Opening the case, Paul McGarry SC (with Patrick O'Reilly SC) said a meeting was held with the landlord, a HSE care worker and Ms X, and it was decided she (Ms X) would have to leave.

It was claimed that despite this, the locks to the house were not changed and later that day, and "extremely unhappy" Ms X went back to the house and invited a number of people to a party.

From statements given to gardai, one of the party-goers admitted starting the fire, counsel said.

It was part of their case that it would have been absolutely clear to the HSE Ms X was not suited to independent living, counsel said.  It should also known from her reaction to being told she was to be evicted, that there was "potential problem coming down the tracks", he said.

Two men told the court they were invited to the party on the night of the fire by Ms X.

Under cross examination by Peter Bland SC, for the HSE and the landlord, the men denied they got into the premises after a window had been broken and they were let in by another person.  They said they were invited in by Ms X.

The hearing was adjourned until Friday.

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