Families Hope Civil Suit Brings Accountability for R.I. Club Fire

September 27, 2006

Now that the criminal case stemming from The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island is ending, the families of some of the 100 people killed in the blaze are looking to a massive civil case for accountability.

The federal lawsuit, filed by nearly 300 people who were injured or lost loved ones in the fire, names dozens of defendants, including everyone from the rock band Great White, whose pyrotechnic display sparked the fire, to a salesman for the company that sold flammable polyurethane foam used as soundproofing.

James Gahan, whose 21-year-old son, Jimmy, died in the fire, said he is hoping the civil case will assign responsibility to everyone who contributed to the tragedy.

“If the criminal system is not going to follow through and make them accountable, the only thing we have left is the civil system,” Gahan said.

The fire at the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub was sparked by pyrotechnics that ignited the foam during a concert by Great White on Feb. 20, 2003. It was the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S history.

The lawsuit alleges that carelessness and negligence by the defendants was to blame for the 100 deaths and more than 200 injuries. Eight of those killed lived or worked in Connecticut.

Many family members of those killed in the fire are angry about a plea deal announced last week for nightclub owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian. In exchange for no contest pleas to involuntary manslaughter charges, Michael Derderian will receive four years in prison, while Jeffrey Derderian will avoid prison altogether. The Derderians are expected to enter their pleas Friday.

Former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, the only other person charged criminally, was sentenced to four years in prison in May after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Chris Fontaine, whose 22-year-old son, Mark, was killed in the fire, said she is hoping the civil case helps give families a better understanding of the events leading up to the fire, particularly why building and fire inspectors in West Warwick allowed the club to remain open after multiple citations for various hazards.

“We’re looking for the answers that we’ve been deprived of because of not having a (criminal) trial,” said Fontaine, whose daughter, Melanie, survived the fire with second- and third-degree burns.

“We want to hear all the evidence. We want to hear about the inspections. We just want information,” she said. “It’s about holding people accountable and getting the answers.”

Attorney Michael St. Pierre, who represents the families of eight people who died and 28 people who were injured, said that once the Derderians enter their pleas and are sentenced, they can be compelled to answer questions in the civil case because they will no longer face criminal liability.

“No longer can Michael or Jeffrey Derderian … refuse to answer interrogatories and depositions that we may set up,” St. Pierre said. “That was a very big obstacle for us.”

The Derderians are both still defendants in the civil case, even though they are shielded from paying damages above their insurance coverage after filing for bankruptcy protection.

The end of the criminal case could also be a boon for civil attorneys because prosecutors have promised to share evidence once the criminal case is over.

A new law passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly in June could encourage some defendants to offer out-of-court settlements before trial.

Under the old law, a jury’s total damages award would be reduced by either the amount of earlier out-of-court settlements by defendants or the proportion of liability that a jury assigned to the defendants who settled, whichever is greater.

Under the new law _ which affects only cases in which there are at least 25 deaths _ the jury’s award would be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis for out-of-court settlements. The degree of liability found by the jury would not be a factor in reducing the award.

“This will make it easier to settle with defendants who want to settle,” said Steven Minicucci, an attorney who represents 17 families who lost relatives or were injured.

Minicucci said many of the injured victims have continuing medical expenses and would benefit from out-of-court settlements rather than waiting for an eventual jury award, which could take years.

“This will hopefully speed up the process and get us to a point where there will be a mechanism to deliver some of the resources into the hands of victims sooner rather than later,” he said.

Michael Cassidy, an associate professor at Boston College Law School, said the jury in the case would likely feel enormous pressure to award large monetary damages. That pressure could be magnified, he said, because it will be difficult to find jurors who haven’t heard about the anger many victims feel about what they see as lenient punishment in the criminal case.

“I would find it hard to believe that the jury wouldn’t take that into account, at least subconsciously,” Cassidy said.

“The family reaction to this plea bargain (for the Derderians)
has been so great and so anguished in some respects I would find it
hard to believe that the jury wouldn’t worry that a modest civil
verdict might have the same effect,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Denise Lavoie is a Boston-based reporter covering the courts and legal issues.

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