Rhode Island, Town Reach $20M Deal in Club Fire Suits

August 20, 2008

The state of Rhode Island and the town of West Warwick have each agreed to pay $10 million to those left behind after a nightclub fire that killed 100 people, according to court documents filed Monday.

The latest settlement offers bring to nearly $175 million the total amount of money pledged to survivors and victims’ relatives over the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick.

The blaze began when pyrotechnics used by the 1980s rock band Great White ignited foam used as soundproofing on the club’s walls and ceilings. Among those who died were eight people who lived or worked in Connecticut.

More than 300 survivors and victims’ relatives had sued dozens of people and companies over the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history, and nearly all defendants, including Anheuser-Busch, Clear Channel Broadcasting and The Home Depot, have agreed to settle rather than head to trial.

The town and the state are the last major defendants to reach tentative settlements.

None of the settlement money has been distributed yet. Among other conditions, the settlements require the approval of a judge and all the plaintiffs. A Duke University law professor has met privately with the victims to work out a formula for how much money each person should get, and that formula must also be approved by the court.

Neither the state nor the town admitted any wrongdoing.

“While we know this settlement will never ease the pain of those enduring enormous heartbreak, it does bring years of court proceedings to an end,” Attorney General Patrick Lynch, whose office represented the state, said in a statement.

The settlements covers former West Warwick Fire Marshal Denis Larocque, who was roundly blamed by victims for failing to cite the club for using cheaper, flammable foam in place of typical soundproofing material during inspections of the building before the fire.

Larocque has never spoken publicly, but has told investigators and a grand jury that he missed the foam because he was focused on a stage door that swung the wrong way and because his inspections looked more into equipment such as emergency lighting and fire extinguishers. Larocque retired earlier this year on occupational disability.

Laywers for the victims said the state, through deputy fire marshals like Larocque, was responsible for enforcing building and fire code laws and for proper building inspections.

Besides Larocque, the settlement also covers a town police officer accused of permitting overcrowding while working security at the club that night and a town building official blamed for failing to enforce the building codes.

The town of West Warwick has agreed to borrow whatever portion of the settlement that exceeds its insurance.

Republican Gov. Don Carcieri and the Democratic-dominated General Assembly must approve the $10 million state settlement and any potential borrowing by West Warwick. But key state leaders would not say whether they would back it. A Carcieri spokeswoman would not comment on any aspect of the deal, including whether he supported it.

At least one plaintiff was unhappy with the settlement offers. Diane Mattera, whose daughter Tammy Mattera-Housa, 29, died in the fire, called the deals “insulting” but said no amount of money could satisfy her.

“How can they decide that all 100 that died, and all that was burnt and everything — all the survivors — that their lives are only worth $10 million?” she asked.

James Gahan, whose 21-year-old son, Jimmy, died in the fire, said it was good for financially struggling victims that the case was moving closer to resolution but also said he thought the town would have been on the hook for more money if it went to trial.

“To have a fire inspector … miss (the foam) on several occasions, I just don’t see how they would have survived the scrutiny of a trial,” Gahan said.

Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who installed the foam, pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006 and former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele, who set off the pyrotechnics, pleaded guilty to the same charges for igniting the devices without the required permit.

Biechele was released on parole in March after serving 22 months of his four-year prison sentence, and Michael Derderian will be out on parole next year. His brother was spared jail time and given community service and probation.

All three men have been sued, but the Derderians have received bankruptcy protection. Great White’s insurer has offered $1 million to the court registry, though victims’ lawyers have not formally accepted that money.

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