Grand Jury to Convene in Club Fire - USA Today - February 26, 2003

By: Fred Bayles
USA Today
February 26, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- Rhode Island's attorney general will convene a grand jury today to determine whether criminal charges can be brought in connection with a nightclub fire that killed 97 people.

Law enforcement officials who talked on condition of anonymity confirmed that the grand jury has subpoenaed several witnesses. Among them were three members of Great White, the rock band whose use of fireworks on stage ignited the blaze that turned The Station rock club into an inferno Thursday.

Criminal charges could range from second-degree murder, which carries a maximum life sentence, to lesser charges of manslaughter or criminal negligence.

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch declined to comment on the grand jury. The band's lawyer, Ed McPherson, said his clients are scheduled to appear before the panel this week.

Lynch said the focus of his investigation into the fire is not limited to the actions of the band or the owners of the club. 'I have no short list,' he said.

Lynch continued to express frustration with the club owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, for failing to answer questions from investigators even as the brothers issue statements to the news media.

On Monday, Jeffrey Derderian, a news reporter with a Providence television station, appeared on a Boston station where he once worked to announce he would conduct his own 'internal investigation.'

'We want answers too,' he said. 'We want to cooperate in any way we can, provide any information we can.'

Lynch denied he was getting that cooperation.

'We have an investigation; if he wants to provide information, it would be greatly appreciated,' Lynch said.

Tom Dickinson, a former Rhode Island deputy attorney general, said under Rhode Island law a person involved in the act of a felony that causes death can be charged with second-degree murder. The unauthorized use of fireworks is a felony offense.

A charge of manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 30 years; lesser charges of setting off fireworks in a building and failure to secure a permit for the use of pyrotechnics carry a maximum sentence of a year in prison.

'Criminally, you have to show a higher level of participation or involvement in the felony,' Dickinson said. 'The question of responsibility on the part of the club operators will turn on what they knew or what they should have known.' McPherson said the band received permission from club management to use fireworks. The club has denied this.

However, a stage manager at The Station said pyrotechnics have been used at the nightclub at least a dozen times since the Derderians took over management in March 2000. Fire inspectors said the club has no permit for pyrotechnics as is required by law.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the families of victims are preparing to sue.

Kenneth Moll, a Chicago lawyer handling cases against a Chicago nightclub where 21 died last week, said he will file suit on behalf of several Rhode Island families as early as next week. Moll said defendants will likely include Great White, the club, the town and the manufacturer of acoustic tiles used to dampen sound in the club. Moll said the tiles were highly flammable.

'We have done an investigation that has led us everywhere,' Moll said. 'This was a highly preventable situation.'

Winning such a lawsuit might be a hollow victory.

According to Moll, Great White has a liability insurance policy worth $ 100,000. The band is signed to Knight Records, a small record label in Encino, Calif., that has limited resources. The nightclub, Moll said, has a policy with a $ 1 million cap.

West Warwick itself will most likely be another target. Michael St. Pierre, president of the Rhode Island Bar Association, said town officials could be found liable if it is proven that town fire inspectors failed to test the acoustic tiles for flammability during fire safety inspections at the club.

'They found minor deficiencies, like the placement of fire extinguishers,' said St. Pierre, a liability lawyer. 'But their duties required them to ask further questions about the composition of materials in the club.'

Even if the town is found culpable, Rhode Island law limits judgments against municipalities to $ 100,000 per case. Due to the paucity of financial resources among possible defendants, Moll said he will ask the Rhode Island Legislature to establish a fund for the victims and their families that could be tapped by the courts.

Moll said he hopes to meet with other attorneys to combine all the claims into a class-action suit.

'If there is a limited fund, a class-action device would prevent a race by individuals to the courthouse to get whatever funds are available,' he said.

Bruce Kogan, dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I., said the courts might consolidate the civil cases. 'With this many claimants, something would have to be done in Rhode Island courts to manage the load,' he said. 'The presiding judge may decide to have the cases heard by one judge instead of having 10 judges ruling on the same set of facts.'