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. Continue reading