TV Station Agrees to $30M Settlement with R.I. Nightclub Fire Victims

February 4, 2008

A Rhode Island TV station and a cameraman accused of getting in the way of people fleeing the nightclub fire that killed 100 people have reached a tentative $30 million settlement with survivors and victims’ relatives, station officials said.

It is the largest settlement of several reached so far with the dozens of people and companies who sued over the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub. The blaze began when pyrotechnics used by the 1980s rock band Great White ignited highly flammable soundproofing foam around the stage.

Brian Butler, a cameraman for WPRI-TV, was at the West Warwick nightclub gathering footage for a segment on safety in public places. His video formed the most complete record of the early moments of the fire, revealing the rapid spread of flames and the frantic rush for the exits.

Lawyers for the victims accused Butler of impeding the crowd’s exit through the front door, where many of the bodies were found. He and his lawyer, Chip Babcock, have denied the claim.

“We did then, and still do, vehemently deny this allegation which is disproved by the video itself,” WPRI general manager Jay Howell said in a statement confirming the settlement.

Babcock, who has previously said Butler “saved lives that night,” did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

In an affidavit submitted last year, Butler said he left the club as soon as he noticed the flames and did not stop to videotape the patrons.

The settlement, which also involves the station’s parent company, LIN TV Corp., was first reported by The Boston Globe. As part of the settlement, the defendants are not admitting any responsibility, said a lawyer involved in the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

LIN TV trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol TVL. TVL Broadcasting Inc., owned by LIN TV, issued a statement saying its insurance company reached the settlement.

The settlement requires the approval of a judge handling the case and the plaintiffs.

Chris Fontaine, whose son died in the fire and whose daughter was injured, said the news brought her little comfort.

“This has never been about the money,” Fontaine said. “No amount of money is ever going to bring back my son or remove the scars from my daughter.”

About 300 survivors and victims’ relatives sued after the fire. Last year, lawyers reached settlements totaling $18.5 million with some of the defendants.

There are still dozens of defendants in the case, including Anheuser-Busch, Clear Channel Broadcasting, several foam manufacturers, the state of Rhode Island and members of Great White. Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian were also sued but have received bankruptcy protection.

The criminal case was resolved in 2006 through plea deals with the three men charged.

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