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Court says ex-students not liable for $4.5 million claim in Dartmouth dorm fire

  • An employee from Belfor, a property restoration company, cleans debris out of a common room on the third floor of Morton Hall at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 3, 2016. A fire broke out over the weekend in the dorm, displacing students. Balfor does not allow employees to give their names. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2021 6:48:46 PM
Modified: 3/21/2021 6:48:44 PM

CONCORD — Two former Dartmouth College students who accidentally started a fire that gutted a 67-bed dormitory in 2016 do not have to reimburse the college’s insurance company for the resulting $4.5 million claim, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled this month.

Factory Mutual Insurance Co. had sought to obtain the money from Daniel Ro and Sebastian Lim under what is known as “subrogation,” where an insurer that has paid out a claim seeks to recover its costs from another party.

In October 2016, Ro and Lim set up a charcoal grill on a platform outside the window of Lim’s dorm room in Morton Hall, which is on East Wheelock Street. The grill started a fire which spread to the roof, and all four floors sustained water damage in the effort to put it out, according to the March 10 ruling.

Using an appliance with an open flame is against school policy, and a month after the fire Ro and Lim launched a petition saying they had been expelled and asking for clemency. They also apologized for the fire, saying they had made a “horrible mistake” but posed no threat to the Dartmouth community. College officials said they cannot comment on their status, but Lim’s LinkedIn page indicates he went on to graduate from Vanderbilt University with an engineering degree.

Dartmouth declined to publicly reveal the cost of the damage, but reopened Morton Hall a year later and added 17 beds, for a total of 84, and an elevator to the building.

The ruling makes clear that Factory Mutual, which is part of Rhode Island-based FM Global, paid Dartmouth $4.5 million and then brought a subrogation claim against the former students. The two men went to court, and a New Hampshire Superior Court judge ruled in their favor, saying that they had been coinsured by implication under the college’s fire insurance policy.

In its appeal, Factory Mutual argued that unlike a tenant in an apartment building, they did not have a “possessory interest” in their dorm rooms and also that the student handbook prohibited charcoal grills and open flames in student dorms. Moreover, the insurance company also noted that the handbook said the violation of the open flame policy “may” result in liability for damage if a fire should result.

But the justices said “treatment of the subject of insurance in the student handbook and other college documents reinforced a reasonable expectation that the responsibility to insure dormitory buildings was allocated to Dartmouth College.”

“As previously stated, Factory Mutual knew that it was insuring a college dormitory and presumably adjusted its rates to account for the risk that a student might violate college policies and negligently start a fire,” the ruling said.

“I’m certainly pleased with the result,” Ro’s attorney, Manchester-based Debbie Lorusso Makris, said. “It was a well-reasoned, well thought-out decision.”

Ro did not respond to a request for comment through Makris. Lim’s attorney, John Schulte, declined to comment.

Matthew Passeri, the Lynnfield, Mass.-based attorney representing Factory Mutual, said that “a college student is distinguishable from a residential tenant,” and also that the warning about liability from violating the open flame policy was relevant.

“We thought that was significant,” he said.

College spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said via email that “Dartmouth is in the process of reviewing this decision carefully and will consider whether and how the ruling should inform future policies and practices.”

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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