Deadly Warehouse Fire Likely to Spur Premises Liability Lawsuits
Gregg Hollander | December 12, 2016 | Premise Liability
It was known as the “Ghost Ship.” It served as a showcase for a cluster of artist studios, illegal living quarters and the occasional underground dance party. Now, the shell of the warehouse in Oakland, CA is the site of one of the deadliest fires in recent U.S. history, and a stark reminder of why it is so critical that property owners abide by fire and safety codes.
Authorities report 36 people died at the venue, and prosecutors were exploring whether murder charges might be filed once the investigation is completed. It’s not clear exactly how the blaze started, but it’s possible that culpable negligence could lead to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Those familiar with the space called it “a death trap,” cluttered with piled wood, furniture, haphazard electrical cords and just two exits. Before the fire, the property manager had reportedly been confronted several times by neighbors regarding trash in the street and on the sidewalk. He was reportedly resistant to inspectors responding to complaints or pressing him to comply with building codes. In a television interview after the fire, he spoke to the families of those lost, saying, “I surrender everything.”
The property owners – a mother and daughter – said they were not aware of the space being used as a dwelling. The family offered their condolences, but that is of little solace to those struggling with enormous grief right now – especially when there is so much evidence these deaths didn’t have to happen. They shouldn’t have happened. It will likely be asserted that but for the negligence of those responsible to keep this property safe, these deaths almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.
These types of mass casualties – at night clubs, apartment buildings/ hotels and other venues – have become infrequent, thanks to a host of improved building and fire code safety standards. Although such codes may vary some at the state and local level, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that standards were set for sprinkler installation and construction of fire escape routes. The New York Times described this as a “watershed moment for fire safety.”
This fire in Oakland highlights the dangers that can arise in buildings like theaters, nightclubs and parties where a massive number of people are crammed into one or two large, dark spaces with limited exits. These kinds of venues were especially perilous in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, one theater fire in 1903 killed more than 600 people in Chicago. In Boston in 1943, there were more than 490 killed in a nightclub fire. Updated fire standards have made a huge difference.
Still, these types of incidents have a few things in common: Overcrowding, interior decorations that are combustible, inadequate stairwells and/or exits and heat sources, such as pyrotechnics, stage lights or candles. You may recall in 2003 in Rhode Island, more than 100 people died in a nightclub fire that ignited with a pyrotechnics show.
Another recent mass casualty fire inside a building occurred three years ago at a Texas fertilizer plant. The fire there was set deliberately, but it set off an explosion of ammonium nitrate, killing 15 and injuring more than 260. Here again, crowding and a lack of exits contributed.
Property owners cannot afford to be complacent in these matters. It could be something as seemingly innocuous as clutter in a hallway, a burned out light in a stairwell or a malfunctioning sprinkler system. Property owners delay these fixes because they can sometimes be expensive, but mostly because they don’t think much about them – because they’ve never needed them. Until they do. But then, as our premises liability lawyers know, it’s usually someone else who pays the price.
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Oakland Fire Was a Rare Mass Casualty Blaze. Fire Codes Help Explain Why., Dec. 4, 2016, By Liam Stack, The New York Times