If you have watched the news recently, then you likely heard about the tragic warehouse fire in Oakland, which took the lives of 36 people, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. While such events are mostly perceived by the public on an emotional level, the reality is that this occurrence will ultimately be judged in the legal arena.
On a recent episode of All Things Legal, Craig Ashton took some time to discuss the potential legal repercussions that the warehouse’s owner and lessee will face. At this time, it seems almost certain that both will face dozens of wrongful death and disfigurement claims. Depending on the cause of the fire, product liability may come into play as well.
We’ll let Craig Ashton take it from here…
Craig: “As you’ve probably heard, there was a fire in Oakland which was deadly, 36 people were killed… and it torched the ‘Ghost Ship,’ which basically is an artist collective warehouse where artists and those who ultimately can’t afford the rent in Oakland are living in a communal environment in a 10,000 square foot warehouse.”
Numerous fire code violations contributed to the seriousness of the Oakland warehouse fire.
Craig: “Some of the bodies were so badly charred that they had to use dental records to find out who they were. So here’s the things that are important from a legal perspective, according to this report: ‘The fire started Friday during a late-night rave being held at the warehouse, home to a couple dozen artists… It is one of the worst U.S. fires in recent memory, bringing to mind the 2003 blaze in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100 people at a nightclub called the Station… City officials said they were alerted to illegal construction, but inspectors couldn’t gain access to the site.’ So that’s a problem. ‘If they had, they would have seen pianos, couches, beds, wood and fabric partitions’—which clearly are fire code violations—‘closing off artist workspaces’—and this is the one that gets me—‘and a staircase made of pallets created by the two dozen people,’ which wound around the several story area that they used as a staircase in ‘10,000-square-foot site.’
“So, 40 or 50 people were inside, and 36 people died. That just tells you how brutal [the circumstances were] and quickly this fire spread. According to reports, ‘Smoke quickly filled the building, trapping some people on the second floor. The lights had cut out, one survivor, who identified himself as Chris, said ‘When you’re in a burning building, you’re being surrounded by a completely hostile environment. It was kind of a free-for-all.’’
“Firefighters arrived in three minutes. So, thank goodness for firefighters. Three minutes. As always, firefighters basically providing unbelievable service within minutes to… lessen this tragedy. But it took four hours to extinguish the flames [due to] how flammable [the building] was.”
The evidence currently available indicates that the building’s lessee carries massive criminal and civil liability.
Craig: “‘The building in Oakland was leased by a man named Derick Ion Almena, who informally ran the collective, and who often hosted parties there to subsidize rent.’ So now he’s making a profit. He’s making a profit, he’s having basically a rave, and if it’s a real rave, there’s probably illegal drugs… so that’s going to be a problem for him, civilly and also criminally.
“‘There was no running water, plumbing, or sprinkler system,’ and there was a ‘labyrinth of flammable materials, had numerous ‘habitability’ complaints lodged against it; the city was investigating those claims.’
“So the city was on notice about what was going on there. And ultimately, the individual Derick Almena, he went on Facebook—and this guy just needs to get a lawyer—he said, ‘Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound… it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope… to be standing now in poverty of self worth.’
“So, I don’t know what ‘opulence and hope’ means to this guy, but if he’s got a 10,000 square foot place where dozens of people are living, which is a labyrinth of flammable materials, it’s got no running water, plumbing, or sprinkler system, and… this is opulence and hope?”
Like many people facing litigation, Almena’s activities on social media are ill-advised.
The potential for self-incrimination via social media is an issue that tends to raise Craig’s ire, and this was no exception.
Craig: “This is a guy who’s going to have criminal investigation. This is a guy who’s going to have massive civil liability. He’s going to have 36 wrongful death cases against him. He’s probably judgment-proof [due to a lack of funds], but that’s going to be $50 million. And if he knew [there would be people] using illegal drugs in this fire hazard, he’s probably going to go to jail under a criminal prosecution. And he believes it’s a good idea, like so many people we talk about on this show, where people get on Instagram and there is a speedometer mode, and they’re going 103 mph and take a picture of themselves, post it, and then get in an accident, and then they’ve created evidence against them. And this guy basically thinks it’s a good idea, with all the criminal and civil liability against him, to go on Facebook.
“Please, if you’re listening, take it from me, a lawyer who’s been practicing for 24 years, if you’re facing any sort of litigation, get off Facebook. If you’ve got a child custody dispute, stay off Facebook. Stay off Instagram… If you are driving a car, do not take pictures of yourself. If you’re driving inebriated, don’t get on Periscope and show everybody where you are and how hammered you are. If you’re going to propose to your fiancée on the interstate in Houston, and stop traffic, don’t take a picture of yourself and put it on Facebook so the cops can prosecute you.
“And if you’re going to be responsible, potentially, for 36 deaths, which is probably the worst fire in recent history in California, don’t get on Facebook and talk about how… everything you worked so hard for is gone, and that this ‘opulence and hope’ that you provided with no plumbing, no running water, no sprinkler system, and a labyrinth of flammable materials, is somehow your loss and not somebody else’s. That is just absolutely unbelievable to me.
“The owner of the property is going to face criminal and civil liability. The lessee, the guy who just went on Facebook that we talked about, definitely criminal and civil liability. The city and the county, if they didn’t basically investigate the habitability issues, there might be some [legal] issues.”
While it’s uncertain as to what caused the warehouse fire—currently, reports are coming out that the ATF is taking a close look at the potential for overloaded powerlines being responsible—it’s obvious that this case is likely to spawn dozens of cases which will spend years wending their way through state and federal courts.