The parents of Alisha Lamers, a young Toronto woman who died trapped in a rooming house inferno in 2013, are suing the landlord for $5 million in civil court.
“We had to make funeral arrangements for our daughter that had just turned 24 years old. She had her whole life in front of her,” said Lamers’ mother, Janet Moore. “Her future was snuffed out.”
Alisha Lamers’ unconscious and badly burned body was pulled from the floor of her basement suite in an unregistered rooming house in the early morning of Nov. 20, 2013.
Under the spreading branches of their daughter’s favourite tree in Toronto’s High Park, Moore and Robert Lamers spoke out about their trauma and anger for the first time since Alisha Lamers’ death six years ago. They are divorced but united in their push for greater accountability.
“Illegal housing hurts people, harms people, kills people. It’s not acceptable, and has to come to a stop,” said Alisha’s father, Robert Lamers.
“If your illegal house kills somebody, you should be charged with criminal negligence causing death and serve a sentence in jail.”
According to the coroner’s report, EMS crews at the scene noted Alisha had no vital signs. They were able to get her heart pumping again, but she went into cardiac arrest twice in the ambulance on the way to Toronto Western Hospital. Lamers had extensive second- and third-degree burns over 55 per cent of her body, and the coroner noted she suffered brain death due to a severe lack of oxygen.
The Office of the Fire Marshal’s Fire Investigation Report noted numerous safety issues in the building, stating: “The structure lacked adequate fire separations, means of egress and smoke alarms.”
The house had been renovated to make room for seven bedrooms. Even the loft floor was subdivided into two separate, locking bedrooms.
The report said investigators never recovered a smoke alarm from the basement apartment debris. Only one working smoke alarm was found on the second floor. Others were located throughout the house but did not have batteries.
The basement suite Lamers was renting had just one exit — the law requires at least two. There were iron bars on the windows of her bedroom, and the stairs inside the house that had originally led to the first floor had been sealed off when the building was renovated into a rooming house.
Konstantin Lysenko owned the house. He was convicted of multiple fire code violations in provincial court in August 2015 and fined $75,000. Lysenko was also placed on probation for 18 months, during which he was not permitted to possess any rental properties.
Lamers and Moore say they are “disgusted” that there were not more serious repercussions for the landlord.
“The government thinks that if they fine him $75,000 that everything is OK. That’s not OK,” Moore said, her voice thick with emotion.
“We lost our daughter. We lost a child. Somebody was killed that was trapped in a house, that couldn’t get out, and that should never happen. I would never want to see what happened with Alisha to happen to anybody. I would never want to see another parent have to go through the pain that we have gone through.
“For the first two years that this happened … I dreamt that I saw Alisha being trapped and I kept trying to get to her and I would wake up,” Moore said.
Lysenko declined a request for an interview.
In his statement of defence, his lawyers argue that because the origin of the fire was undetermined, Lysenko cannot be held liable.
The statement also says that Lysenko offered to remove the bars from the windows of the basement suite, but Lamers “wanted them to remain for fear of break-ins.”
The statement of defence adds that Lamers was, “fully aware of the layout and condition of her apartment,” and that “she failed to exercise due care for her own safety and, or exacerbated the risk to her safety and created a hazard and fire risk.”
Toronto’s rooming house problem
In Toronto, licensed rooming houses are inspected annually to ensure they are up to code. Unlicensed rooming houses fly under the regulatory radar, and fire officials say they have no way of knowing how many there are.
According to the office of the Fire Marshal, between 2013 and 2017 there were fires at 69 illegal rooming houses in the Toronto area.
“I’ve seen upwards of 27, 28 individuals in a rooming house at one time,” said Toronto Fire Service Deputy Fire Chief Larry Cocco during an interview at Toronto Fire Service headquarters.
He said he can’t speak about the Lamers case because it is before the courts, but Cocco is adamant the Toronto Fire Service is doing its part to crack down on illegal rooming houses.
“I closed one down on Friday of last week,” Cocco said. “I can’t get into the details, but there were significant fire safety issues.”
Since 2014, Cocco said the Toronto Fire Service has formally charged 226 people or corporations with operating a rooming house with fire code infractions.
Cocco said firefighters can also take “immediate threat-to-life actions,” which can include removing people and hazards from a building, and posting warnings throughout that the building is in violation of the fire code.
In rare cases, they can opt to shut the building down entirely. Since 2018, Toronto Fire Service has had the power to close down buildings on its own say-so if there is a serious threat to life.
In 2017 the fire service issued 44 immediate threat-to-life actions, and closed five buildings. Last year it issued 30 immediate threat-to-life actions and shut down two buildings.
The biggest challenge isn’t enforcing the code, it is finding the unlicensed rooming houses.
“How do we know the locations if they are operating illegally?” Cocco asked. “We wouldn’t have any idea where they are. So the public is key for those complaints to be brought forward, and we deal with them quite judiciously.”
When his department receives a tip about an illegal rooming house, it is mandated to immediately inspect it, Cocco added. And he said it is possible for people to report illegal rooming houses and suspected fire code violations anonymously.
“If everything works as designed — there’s always going to be exceptions to that — but the Ontario fire code provides that robust system of fire code requirements,” Cocco said.
‘It’s gotta mean something’
Lamers had only lived in the apartment with her boyfriend for roughly a month before the fire.
Moore said she had repeatedly tried to dissuade her daughter from staying there.
“Every time that I went to the house, I told her that she should not be living there. And that this was an illegal apartment.”
Moore said she asked her daughter for the landlord’s phone number and pressed her to call him to make sure the apartment was up to code.
“I don’t know if she ever did. I think in her mind she felt safe. She was a very trusting person,” Moore said.
“At one point when we were having an argument about it, she had said that ‘how could he give us a lease for a house if it was illegal?’ And that’s how young kids … they just don’t know the law and she believed him,” Moore said.
If there is a judgment in Lamers and Moore’s favour in the civil suit, it could prove difficult for them to collect any payment. Lysenko filed for bankruptcy in March. Court records state Lysenko was denied an insurance payout on the rooming house because he had misrepresented to the insurance company that he was living there.
Court filings also allege Lysenko transferred ownership or “fraudulently conveyed” one of his properties “for the purpose of protecting it from judgment in the civil action and for the purpose of hindering, delaying, and defrauding the plaintiffs.”
“This man has played a shell game, in our opinion,” said Lawyer Michael Smitiuch, who represents Moore and Lamers.
“No amount of money can make up for the loss of their daughter, but what it can do is air what happened in open court in public,” Smitiuch added.
“I think that’s very important, that people know what happened here. I think it’s important for people to know for their own safety, for their own children’s safety, the dangers that exist out there.”
Moore and Lamers say it isn’t just about justice, it’s about bringing some meaning to their daughter’s death.
“The firefighters put their own lives at risk to save her life. The paramedics, everybody in the hospital staff did everything they could to bring her back to life,” Lamers said. “They tried really hard to let her live. And it’s gotta mean something.
“We hope to seek some justice for Alisha and hold this guy accountable, and hopefully change the laws.”