More than 200 Plaintiffs Sue over R.I. Nightclub Fire

July 26, 2004

More than 200 people affected by Rhode Island’s deadliest nightclub fire are suing the state, club owners, Budwesier, makers of foam soundproofing material, an insurance company and other defendants, alleging that their carelessness and negligence are to blame for 100 deaths and dozens of injuries.

The lawsuit was filed on July 23 on behalf of 146 survivors and the family members of 80 people who died, the largest wave of plaintiffs yet to sue over the Feb. 20, 2003 blaze at The Station nightclub in West Warwick. It seeks monetary damages but does not specify an amount.

The lawsuit in Providence Superior Court follows a criminal indictment and at least six previous lawsuits that have been consolidated in federal court. The latest lawsuit also is expected to be moved to federal court.

The lawsuit alleges that 46 defendants, including state Fire Marshal Irving Owens, failed to ensure the nightclub was safe and also claims wrongful death, loss of consortium and product liability.

The fire was sparked by pyrotechnics during a performance by the band Great White. In addition to those killed, more than 200 were hurt.

Lawyer Mark Mandell, one of eight lawyers who filed the lawsuit, called it “the product of over a year’s work preserving and analyzing evidence.”

The suit accuses club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian of negligently failing to obtain a license for pyrotechnics and failing to install safe soundproofing material. It also says the brothers failed to provide fire prevention, detection and suppression materials, and their club did not have adequate exits.

Fire analysts have said most concertgoers ran to the same exit to escape the one-story building.

The lawsuit also alleges that Brian Butler, a WPRI television station cameraman at the club to gather footage for another story, impeded the exit of concertgoers trying to leave the club while he was shooting video. CBS in New York was also sued for doing business with WPRI.

“Brian saved lives that night and provided the most accurate recording of this tragic event which has been invaluable to investigators and, frankly, to plaintiffs themselves,” said Chip Babcock, a lawyer for LIN Television Corp., WPRI’s parent company, which was also sued.

The suit claims West Warwick fire inspector Denis Larocque is liable for failing to note the presence of foam used as soundproofing during inspections after the Derderians bought the club in March 2000.

The foam is blamed for spreading the fire quickly through the wooden nightclub and releasing toxic substances, which may have caused a number of deaths.

The lawsuit also named two publicly traded foam manufacturers, Leggett & Platt and Foamex International; American Foam Corp., the Johnston-company that sold the foam to the Derderians; and one of its former employees, who lived near the club.

State law bars such highly flammable material from being used as soundproofing in clubs and bars.

Five former employees of the club, who were working the night of the blaze, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but are not suing the Derderians or Derco LLC, the brothers’ company.

State law prohibits workers injured on the job from filing liability suits against their employers. Employees can make claims in Workers Compensation Court.

The lawsuit also alleges that Great White band leader Jack Russell and the band’s then-tour manager Dan Biechele, were negligent for igniting the pyrotechnics.

Biechele did not have a permit for the pyrotechnics. The Derderians have said they were unaware pyrotechnics were going to be used during the concert. The band has said it received permission.

The Derderian brothers and Biechele were indicted last December on 200 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. They have pleaded innocent. Their lawyers declined comment on the latest lawsuit, citing the criminal proceedings.

In the lawsuit, Anheuser-Busch is alleged to have contributed to overcrowding in the club by promoting the concert, where its Budweiser beer was sold. Clear Channel Broadcasting was also named in the lawsuit, for promotion of the concert by one its radio stations, WHJY.

The beer company said in a statement from its lawyer that it should not be named in the lawsuit, and it did not advertise, sponsor or promote the band.

Additionally, the lawsuit names Essex Insurance Co. for allegedly failing to note the presence of highly flammable “surface treatments” and the inadequacy of exits. According to the lawsuit, Essex conducted inspections of the club at least three times between 1996 and 2002. Essex issued a commercial liability policy to Michael Derderian which began March 24, 2002.

The Attorney General’s office and lawyers for Essex and Russell declined to comment on lawsuit. Larocque’s lawyer didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed

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