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Fight widens in lawsuit over costly 2009 Christmas tree fire at Milton Hershey School [The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.]

The insurer and the trust company claim Designs Unlimited workers were negligent in connecting the wiring for the 5,000 lights on the tree to a three-outlet electrical adapter that overloaded and set the velvet skirt and packages beneath the tree ablaze.

By Matt Miller, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 20--A battle is heating up in a Dauphin County Court lawsuit about a Christmas tree fire in 2009 that caused $3.4 million in damage to Founder's Hall at the Milton Hershey School.

The main defendant in the case, Pottstown-based Designs Unlimited Interior Landscapes Inc., on Monday added nine other firms as defendants in the suit filed by Travelers Property & Casualty Insurance and Hershey Trust Co.

The insurer and the trust company, which oversees the Milton Hershey School Trust, a $7.5 billion endowment for the school for underprivileged children, claim shoddy workmanship in setting up the lighting for the school's Christmas tree resulted in the Dec. 21, 2009, fire.

No one was injured when the school's 25-foot-tall artificial evergreen tree burst into flames, but smoke and soot permeated the Derry Twp. building and the cleanup was costly.

According to the suit, the school sustained $105,000 in uninsured losses in addition to the millions of dollars Travelers spent on the cleanup.

The insurer and the trust company claim Designs Unlimited workers were negligent in connecting the wiring for the 5,000 lights on the tree to a three-outlet electrical adapter that overloaded and set the velvet skirt and packages beneath the tree ablaze.

Designs Unlimited contends that it wasn't negligent and claims that the adapter that caught fire was supplied by school officials.

The defendants that Designs Unlimited added to the case include a Taiwanese company that made the lights on the tree; The Home Depot, which sold the lights; and three firms that Designs Unlimited claims were involved in manufacturing the electrical adapter.

Also joined as defendants were the companies that installed and serviced the building's fire alarm, sprinkler and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Designs Unlimited contends that the fire alarm and sprinkler systems malfunctioned, preventing the blaze from being immediately extinguished, and that the HVAC system was defective in that it transported smoke and soot throughout the building.

After the fire, the 125-foot-high ceiling of the rotunda at Founders Hall was coated in gray residue, while the floor was covered in soot. Damage extended to the nearby auditorium and cafeteria.

School employees nearly succeeded in putting out the blaze with fire extinguishers but had to be evacuated because of the thick smoke and toxic fumes emitted by the burning tree.

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The fire occurred during winter break when no students were at the school.

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(c)2011 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

Visit The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) at www.pennlive.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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