A recent Associated Press report, republished in The Oregonian, details the legal consequences of a senseless and tragic fire that killed three dozen people in California in December 2016. According to the news agency, 36 people died as a result of “a devastating fire at a dilapidated California warehouse that occurred during an unpermitted concert.”
Under the terms of an agreement with prosecutors two men pled no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter. Sentencing will take place in August, according to the AP. One man faces up to nine years in prison and the other six years. Both have already been in prison for a year. The defendant facing the longer sentence “rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into an entertainment venue and residences that became known as the ‘Ghost Ship’ before the December 2016 blaze.”
The article quotes a number of the victims’ family members expressing displeasure at the outcome, especially since the defendants are likely to receive credit for time already served and could be released after serving only half of their eventual sentences. It is precisely situations like this that remind us of the importance of our civil courts, where people placed in the kind of impossible situations confronting these family members can seek the justice they feel the criminal system has denied them. Whether in California or Oregon the most obvious claim to be considered here is wrongful death. ORS 30.020 defines this as “the death of a person… caused by the wrongful act or omission of another.” In a case like this the evidence to support such a claim is clear. At the most basic level, the ‘club’ where the fire took place was operating without the proper licenses and permits. Had the owners gone through the required procedures there is every reason to believe that fire marshals would have demanded extensive changes to the facility before allowing it to open to the public.