Lawsuit sparks from 50th & Bryant blaze

Blackbird sues Heidi’s over February 2010 fire

It’s true — Blackbird Café is suing Heidi’s Restaurant for $383,000, but the situation is more complicated than it appears upon first blush.

Early this month, Blackbird was named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against Heidi’s co-owners Stewart and Heidi Woodman. The suit alleges the Woodmans acted negligently by failing to maintain the restaurant’s fire suppression system in the days leading up to the February 2010 fire.

The blaze began as a grease fire in Heidi’s kitchen, spread into the building’s tin ceiling and quickly engulfed the entire structure, laying ruin to a Lynnhurst landmark that was home to five businesses at 50th & Bryant, including Blackbird and Patina.

But Blackbird co-owner Gail Mollner said the lawsuit was actually instigated by Blackbird’s insurance company, which is seeking reimbursement for the settlement it gave to Mollner and Stevens following the fire.

“We actually have not filed a lawsuit. Blackbird is not suing Heidi’s,” Mollner said, adding that she and Stevens had never been in a situation like this before and were as surprised by the filing as anyone else.

According to Andrew Sveen, an attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis, the firm representing Blackbird, the suit is an example of a subrogation claim.

Under subrogation an insurance company assumes the right of the insured to sue the party who is allegedly responsible for damages to the extent for which it has reimbursed the insured.

“Blackbird received an insurance payment as a result of the fire, and the insurance company has a right to recover that payment,” Sveen said.

Sandra Grove, the attorney representing Heidi’s, said that “in Minnesota, in a case like this, there is no legal option for the insurance company to sue” — hence the suit being brought on behalf of Blackbird.

In the court filing, Blackbird’s attorneys allege that before the fire, Heidi’s replaced its kitchen gas range with a larger unit but didn’t make commensurate upgrades to the restaurant’s fire suppression system.

“Heidi’s owed a duty to Blackbird to have the [fire suppression system] and ventilation ductwork properly inspected, installed and maintained… so as to prevent flare-ups and kitchen fires from spreading into adjoining properties,” the filing says.

The filing argues that Heidi’s ownership breached its duties by negligently and carelessly installing a gas range without modifying the fire suppression system; by failing to have the fire suppression system properly inspected and tested; and by failing to follow the warnings provided by the restaurant’s ductwork cleaning service “that there was a two inch hole in the exhaust ductwork which presented a fire hazard and needed to be repaired,” among other allegations.

The Minneapolis Fire Department’s investigation doesn’t suggest that negligence contributed to the blaze. In a report, the MFD’s investigator concludes that the 50th & Bryant blaze “was an accidental fire caused by a fire that entered the kitchen hood exhaust system in an inaccessible attic area above the retail space.”

Steward and Heidi Woodman didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment. However, in an e-mail, Steward Woodman said “the notion that Heidi and I were negligent on any level is simply laughable.”

Grove refused to comment when asked how she and the Woodmans planned to respond to the filing’s allegations, though she added that a written response had already been prepared.

Since the fire, both Blackbird and Heidi’s have reopened in new Southwest locations — Blackbird at 38th & Nicollet and Heidi’s at 29th & Lyndale. Both restaurants have reported brisk business and received favorable reviews.   

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of 50th & Bryant continues. The new building’s foundation is now in place, and work on the rebuilt commercial structure should wrap up next month. Rick Haase, co-owner of the 50th & Bryant property and Patina, said Patina plans to reopen at the corner this July.

Reached for comment a few days after the lawsuit was filed on May 2, Mollner said she hoped the Woodmans aren’t harboring any hard feelings toward her or Stevens, though she hadn’t made an attempt to contact them.

Regarding the timing of the lawsuit, she said it was her understanding that the insurance company was gathering information about the circumstances of the blaze and had been planning to file a suit for some time.

“The bottom line is we got an enormous chunk of money from our insurance company,” Mollner said, “and someone needs to pay for that.”