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A glass window ornament that fire officials believe reflected sunlight so strongly that it ignited curtains and started a house fire is the subject of a $728,000 lawsuit filed in Howard County Circuit Court.

The 1988 fire, which started in a Columbia condominium, spread to two neighboring units and caused $664,000 in damage.

The residents of the fire-damaged homes, two insurance companies,and the Woodford Condominium Association have filed suit against themanufacturer and merchant who sold the ornament.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, alleges that the ornament was sold in an unreasonably dangerous and defective condition and should have been accompanied by a warning not to use the ornament in direct sunlight.

"Itwas the nature of where the sun was in the sky and what kind of day it was, combined with the very, very powerful focusing ability of that ornament that started the fire," said Edward Shore, owner of the condominium on Ring Dove Lane where the fire started.

"Those conditions are common conditions -- a sunny day, western exposure, four in the afternoon," Shore said.

"Anybody with a similar ornament could have suffered a similar fate."

Shore bought the ornament as a birthday present for his daughter in March of 1988 from John Yingling, who operates "A Touch of Glass" at The Mall in Columbia, the lawsuit says.

Yingling bought the round, beveled glass from Studio Design Central, a Frederick business owned by Roy Culler that sells and repairs glass products, the lawsuit says.

Yingling and Culler both declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The ornament hung in a window in the second-floor front bedroom of Shore's condominium.

The angle of the edge of the glass caused it to act like a magnifying glass, producing a temperature sufficient to ignite material, the lawsuit claims.

The June 5, 1988 fire, state investigators said, started in Shore's condominium and spread to two adjacent units.

Substantial property damage resulted from the fire and the residents of the damaged condominiums were forced from their homes during the repairs.

The cause of the fire proved to be somewhat of a mystery for state fire experts who, after weeks of investigation, were ready to label it the work of an arsonist.

Then Shore remembered thebeveled glass window ornament.

He purchased a similar cut-glass ornament, and working with state fire investigators, hung it in the window of the second-floor bedroom where the fire had started.

Within 15 seconds, the sunlight refracted by the ornament ignited a curtain, and investigators said they had found the cause ofthe fire.

"There should have been some proper warning given to purchasers of the ornament that hanging itin a window with strong sunlight could cause a potential fire hazard," Shore said.

State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. and Valley Forge Insurance Co. are asking for $616,000 in damages to cover the paymentsmade to the condominium association and to residents for damaged property and living expenses.

The remainder of the homeowners' damagesrequest is for costs not covered by the insurance companies.

Attorneys for the insurance companies and the condominium residents couldnot be reached for comment.

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