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.
That, in turn, raises the question of whether the authorities were doing their jobs properly and, if not, the extent to which their failures were a contributory factor in the fire. Here in Oregon ORS 476.030 outlines the duties and authorities of far marshals (who, at the state level, operate under the aegis of the Oregon State Police). The law empowers the fire marshals to make and enforce rules relating to “the maintenance and regulation of structural safety features in occupied structures” (Section 1c) and specifically extends this authority to “halls, theaters (and) amphitheaters.” Critically, the law also gives the state fire marshals jurisdiction over the rule-making and enforcement actions of their local counterparts. With this broad authority, however, comes significant responsibility.
As an Oregon wrongful death attorney I hope the families of the 36 victims know that the plea agreement negotiated by local prosecutors does not close off their legal avenues. Justice, and a sense of closure, can often be obtained through our civil courts even when the criminal system seems to fall short. Going forward it will be essential to consider both the responsibility of the men who have now been convicted and the extent to which local authorities should have put a stop to an illegal apartment complex and concert hall before something like this happened in the first place.