At the beginning of this month, a fire broke out in an Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship at roughly 11:30 p.m. The Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse had been converted into an artist collective and housing units. The Ghost Ship was hosting a concert promoted by an LA record label. Thirty-six people were killed in the fire, making it the deadliest fire in Oakland history and the deadliest California fire since the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Several factors interfered with the escape process and led to the eventual fatalities. There were no sprinklers in the building, and firefighters on scene did not hear smoke detectors. The building was cluttered with wooden furniture and art. There was also a “makeshift, one-way stairwell” composed of wooden pallets that connected the first and second floors. Oakland Department Chief told reporters, “It was like a maze, almost.”
Comparisons have been drawn between this fire and the 1990 nightclub fire in New York City that claimed 87 lives. That fire also involved controversial operations of the structure, and suffered from similar conditions including lack of emergency exits and poor maintenance.
A minimum of 10 complaints had been filed regarding the Ghost Ship since 1998, most recently in November of this year. City building inspectors visited the warehouse on November 17, but left when no one answered the door. A spokesperson for the Planning and Building Department noted that an event like the December 2 concert required a special permit, but none was issued. The City of Oakland’s planning director revealed that the building had not been inspected for 30 years.
It is unknown what caused the fire. An initial report indicated the fire was started by a refrigerator, but this theory was rejected by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) (although the ATF left open the possibility that the fire was started by another electrical appliance). Max Ohr, creative director of the artist collective, stated that he had reported electrical problems to the building’s owner prior to the fire. The building’s operator and master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, apologized for the incident in an emotionally wrought interview.
While Fruitvale residents claim that Almena illegally converted the building into living and studio spaces for artists (it was not zoned for residential use), investigators are unsure whether Almena or the building’s owner, Chor N. Ng, are responsible for the incident. A San Francisco Attorney indicates both could be responsible. “The property owner has certain responsibilities with regard to maintaining and inspecting their property,” she explained, “and the  master tenant also has individual responsibilities related to the maintenance and operation of a property consistent with its zoning.”co
At press conference this month, the Alameda District Attorney said that the ruins of the warehouse are “a potential crime scene.” Criminal charges could theoretically range from misdemeanor code violations to manslaughter or even murder. (Manslaughter does not require malice or intent, while second-degree can be found where the defendant understands an act could result in loss of life and does it anyway.) Civil suits require victims to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, a substantially lower standard than that in a criminal case: beyond a reasonable doubt.
A San Francisco Attorney whose firm represented the family of a 1997 San Francisco fire said the Oakland fire is “clearly  the result of people not paying attention to safety.” Some Bay Area lawyers indicate they have already been retained represent victims of the fire. Wrongful-death lawsuits would list the property owner and Almena. Other potential defendants include any contractors, engineers and architects; the city of Oakland; promoters of the concert held the night of the incident (the Ghost Ship had a long history of hosting parties); and manufacturers of items inside the building that may have contributed to the fire.
Given the large number of victims in Oakland, civil lawyers will likely search for “deep pocket” defendants who can pay large amounts of damages. If the warehouse owner were found liable, lawyers would try to recover damages from her insurance company and by going after her other assets, such as other properties.
Many have blamed the Bay Area’s housing crisis for forcing lower-income individuals into illegal and potentially dangerous living spaces like the Ghost Ship. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has ordered an independent analysis of the city’s handling of the Ghost Ship and other similar buildings.
The premises liability lawyers at the Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.
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