R.I. Nightclub Fire Claims May Total $1 Billion

As families of the dead and injured struggle with their grief after one of the country's deadliest fires, some are starting to look for compensation. Lawyers say it won't come easily.

Rhode Island lawyers estimate at least $1 billion worth of lawsuit claims will be filed in the coming months. But they're not as confident that the pockets of those who may be responsible are deep enough to pay.

"The reality is that, at the end of the day, there's going to be a lot of tears," said Ronald Resmini, a Providence lawyer representing two of the dozens of people injured when fire swept through The Station nightclub Feb. 20. "Probably more tears than money."

Warwick attorney John Lynch, representing other survivors and families of some of the 98 people killed in the blaze, said it would take several months to get any civil cases ready.

In the meantime, the state's criminal investigation is under way.

"It's appropriate for the state to interview certain witnesses and make certain determinations before we do," Lynch said.

No charges had been filed as of Saturday, but a grand jury is investigating the blaze that started moments after the '80s rock band Great White began playing. Pyrotechnics caught soundproofing material surrounding the stage on fire, and the flames and smoke quickly spread. Fire officials said the building was engulfed within three minutes.

"The most culpable people seem to be the owners of the bar and the band," said attorney Mark Decof, also representing victims. "But it would appear there is wholly inadequate coverage there. So you have to look elsewhere - starting with the products involved, the people who supplied them, the people who prepared them and maintained them."

Civil lawyers could go after the manufacturers of the pyrotechnics or the soundproofing material that it ignited. Concert promoters, even the architects of the building - constructed in the early 1940s - are potential defendants, Decof said.

After a fire in 1977 swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., killing 165 people, General Electric paid $10 million to settle claims that it made faulty wiring in the building, though it never admitted liability. Insurance and settlements with companies involved in the building's operation and construction paid out about $50 million.

Lawsuits following a 1990 blaze that killed 87 at New York City's Happy Land Social Club were settled by the club's owners and insurers for about $15 million.

Attorneys for the Rhode Island club have said the owners were never told the band would be shooting off pyrotechnics; the band's attorneys have said the club gave them permission.

Lawyers of several victims said they also would consider suing the town of West Warwick, where the club was located.

They could make a case that fire officials didn't properly inspect the club and that police failed to provide appropriate crowd control. However, getting money from the government could be difficult.

West Warwick's insurance is covered by the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust, a risk pool created by the state's municipalities.

Tom Dwyer, president and executive director of the trust, said West Warwick's coverage allows for a maximum of $4 million to be paid in the case of a single incident. That $4 million would have to be split among all eligible claimants, he said.

Under state law, towns are immune from lawsuits unless a lawyer can prove they are responsible for extraordinary wrongdoing.

"If the town did their due diligence in checking out the safety of the club, you can pretty much expect they won't be able to be sued," said attorney David Yas, an editor for Rhode Island Lawyer's Weekly. "The problem in this case is that once you round up everyone potentially responsible, it likely will not be the kind of money that will even remotely cover peoples' losses."

If a court does allow the town to be sued, state law would limit each lawsuit to $100,000 per victim, Yas said.

The only way to exceed that cap is if the General Assembly passes a law saying the reward should be higher, he said.

"That cap is a real impediment to people getting what they're entitled to," Decof said. "But I don't know that it would be possible to exceed it."

Stanley Chesley, a Cincinnati lawyer who collected damages for relatives of some of the Beverly Hills Supper Club victims, has been asked by Rhode Island lawyers to help them investigate The Station fire and identify the parties to be sued.

"The fact that there is not enough available compensation does not mean you let this walk away," he said. "The only way you'll find a deterrent to the behavior and mistakes that allowed this to happen is to find someone culpable."