A devastating fire in Oakland, California in a decrepit warehouse called the Ghost Ship has left families of 36 people in mourning and a whole community reeling. The incident highlights the imperative nature of fire safety codes, which have done much over the last several decades to improve the well-being of occupants in large, crowded structures, from theaters to apartment buildings. Some of the biggest unanswered questions at this point revolve around whether the building was up-to-date on fire codes and, if not, what was known or done by city fire officials to press for repairs.
Property owners and managers have a responsibility to make sure their sites are reasonably safe for those who are legally there. The degree of that duty varies depending on the victim’s purpose on the property. For example, paying customers are owed the highest duty of care, while those who are on site to further their own interests are owed a lesser duty. Even those who are trespassing are owed some protection, though exactly how much varies by state and other case-specific facts.
Here, city fire officials haven’t indicated how often code inspectors visited the site or whether it was ever flagged for violations or for the fact that it was (likely) being used for purposes other than what its zoning allowed. Although this was designated as a warehouse space, witnesses and investigators have indicated it was being used for a myriad of different purposes, including not just storage but art galleries and mini-residences. On the night of the fire, the warehouse was being used for an underground concert. It’s not clear who organized, promoted, or was responsible for that event.
The facility was reportedly managed by a husband-and-wife team, who were listed as the “master tenants,” and they, in turn, sublet parts of the building to others. The building was actually owned by a woman and her daughter. Tenants speaking to The New York Times indicated that when the owners of the property were coming to visit, tenants living in the space were instructed by the property managers to pack away any bedding or cooking supplies.
State law in California requires commercial buildings to be inspected once annually, but a 2014 report from the state indicated some 4,000 buildings in Alameda County, where this incident occurred, weren’t inspected due to “competing priorities.”
So the question for survivors and those who lost loved ones becomes: Who was responsible? Our Charlotte wrongful death attorneys, just based on the information that is out so far, would opine there are a few avenues of liability that could be pursued, including:
- Claims against the property manager(s).
- Claims against the property owners(s).
- Claims against the city/fire department/inspection officials.
Any wrongful death claims against the city are going to be challenging because there will in all likelihood be an assertion of sovereign immunity, and employees would be protected from individual liability under that umbrella. However, sovereign immunity isn’t absolute and there are exceptions, which vary from state-to-state.
The Times found evidence in Oakland of a number of other similar mixed-use warehouses that may pose a fire and safety hazard to occupants. Although we’re on the opposite coast, certainly Charlotte isn’t immune to that – particularly with regard to assembly occupancy. This is when buildings like nightclubs, theaters, or other venues invite large numbers of people and cram them into one or two large, dark spaces with just a handful of exits.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
36 Deaths in Oakland Fire: Delving Into What Happened, and Why, Dec. 8, 2016, Staff Report, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
Rogers v. Martin – Liability for Death of Party Guest, Nov. 8, 2016, Charlotte Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog