Saturday, November 24, 2007

Litigation following Rhode Island 2003 fire ensares many parties; a case for tort reform?


The DC Examiner, in p 11 in its Weekend Nov. 24, 2007 issue, has an AP story “Plaintiffs cast blame for 2003 blaze: 90 businesses, people sued.” The story refers to the huge nightclub fire in the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, RI February 20, 2003 when pyrotechnics from the performance of the Great White band ignited the club, resulting over 100 deaths and many cases of severe burns. The original CNN story was here.

Club owners, and a Great White tour manager reached a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter in the criminal complaints. However, injured parties have gone after “deep pockets” (and some not so deep pockets) of entities less directly connected to the catastrophe. The defendants will include Annheuser Busch and Clear Channel Broadcasting, West Warwick town officials, and even a TV cameraman present.

While anyone wants to respect sympathy for the victims, allowing lawsuits against parties who had no real oversight of the show or ability to prevent the disaster and simply a routine connection to advertise or promote it commercially, sets a dangerous precedent and also argues for “loser pays” style tort reform. It could make it much more difficult for all kinds of new businesses. Could a blogger who was there be sued on the theory that he or she could have done more?

As a coincidence, I had actually just visited the Warwick area on January 1-2, 2003 on a film-related issue.

Night clubs have, in the past few years, become sensitive to the liability they could incur because of patron conduct. There have been a few catastrophic incidents in Washington DC (including a horrific assault on a bar manager at a NW DC bar recently) and sometimes these have led to loss of licenses. Bars typically require that patrons be 21; it is legal for persons 18-20 to be present if they don't drink but the bars get in trouble if they do. (Some discos will admit known celebrities under 21 when they agree not to drink; some reserve one night a week as "college night" and have color-coded wrist bands.) False ID cards, and rings that provide them, also present a problem. Sometimes, because of fear of litigation or law enforcement, security can be overzealous. I was asked to leave the Gay 90s in Minneapolis one time in October 2001 when I stumbled slightly coming down a staircase (I have lingering effects from a hip fracture) and the security guard thought I was impaired; I was not.

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