Suits Place Values on Lost Lives - The Boston Herald - February 26, 2003

By: Cosmo Macero Jr.
The Boston Herald
February 26, 2003

I heard a very confused woman call in to a radio show last weekend - going on about how she hoped people understood that 'litigation isn't the answer' in the aftermath of The Station nightclub fire.

With nearly 100 lost lives and half again as many in painful ruins, even fierce tort-reform advocates should take a pass on this one.

It's true, as the caller said, that 'nothing can bring them back.'

But it's for that very reason that legal action is the only answer.

One of the ironies of life is that we rarely know its true value until death arrives. In the case of The Station - that burnt wooden coffin in West Warwick, R.I. - its arrival was a horrific end to a night of music and fun that a good many probably joined on a whim.

For the families of those killed and the individuals suffering injuries, the long road toward getting compensation has begun.

The problem: 'Nobody plans for a nightmare,' says California lawyer David E. Wood. 'You wouldn't expect them to.'

Nightclubs, such as The Station, are considered well-covered for liability with an insurance policy of, say, $ 1 million to $ 10 million. That means $ 1 million per incident, with a maximum total exposure of $ 10 million.

Lawyers preparing victims' cases say club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian may only have a $ 5 million cap, and possibly less.

Limited resources, too, are available from the ill-fated Great White - a mostly forgotten rock band with its best years long behind it.

There was a time when Great White's deadly pyrotechnics display might have been an expensive problem for EMI-Capitol Records - the major label the band played for during its heyday.

But the present-day version of Great White gets its tour support from the independent Knight Records - 'a very small label,' according to one of its executives. Translation: They have no money.

Just do the math.

Even a modest wrongful death award of $ 1 million per fatality would require $ 100 million worth of insurance and other assets.

And in reality, the damage awards or insurance claims figure to be exponentially higher. Because at the point of wrongful death, every life is given maximum value - based on the hard economics of earnings potential, and such intangibles as quality of life and companionship.

'People always say, 'How can you put a value on human life,' ' says Judson Graves, a defense lawyer from Atlanta who specializes in personal injury. 'But nevertheless, some jury some day or some arbitrator or mediator is going to have to value these lives.'

It only gets more costly when you turn to the 60 or so people left badly burned and almost breathless by the Station inferno.

In the bluntest of terms, says lawyer Wood, 'A life that lingers with pain and suffering is worth more than a wrongful death.'

It is in this realm where the morbid cruelty of what it sometimes takes to do right by a client takes hold. Burn victims' lawyers, Wood says, are probably already documenting their misery.

'They will have video cameras in the hospital, (recording) the agony these people are going through,' Wood says.

Typical pain-and-suffering awards can be a multiple of three or more times the total cost of nursing a victim back to health.

The horror of the Station tragedy gripped most of us right away. But the cost to rightfully compensate just a single survivor is only starting to settle in.

Now multiply it times 10. Times 30. Times 60.

Providence lawyer John Calvino, who represents several Station victims, says the strategy is to find every angle that may lead to a responsible party 'with insurance.'

'That means the band and the club owners to the builders of the building, the (pyrotechnic) products involved, the management company,' Calvino says. He also lists West Warwick as a potential defendant.

Chicago lawyer Kenneth Moll, who is gathering plaintiffs by phone and via the Internet, suggests a better outcome might be creation of a 'victims' compensation fund' - similar to the government-backed pool providing payouts to families of Sept. 11, 2001, victims.

Maybe so. But unlike an act of terrorist war against our nation, the Station tragedy was a preventable disaster for which a handful of known parties are at least partly liable. Should the state of Rhode Island and the federal government bail them out?

It's an awful thing when people die because a few simple things weren't done right.

But with so many wrongful deaths at the Station, the only right thing left to do is to hold people accountable. It might mean criminal penalties. It most certainly means devastating financial ones.

That no one could have envisioned this large a catastrophe only compounds the tragedy.

Because nobody ever plans for a nightmare.