clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Suing deep-pocketed firms for R.I. blaze is wrong

Crafty attorneys are panning for gold among the ashes of The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. That is where indoor fireworks at a Great White concert set a bar ablaze and unleashed mayhem on Feb. 20.

Rather than simply target this rock act and the owners of the now-incinerated venue, one trial lawyer already has sued Clear Channel Communications and Anheuser-Busch. Others are considering joining in.

Supposedly, those companies should pay, big time, for promoting this event.

As a Mar. 14 Wall Street Journal editorial explained, Clear Channel's WHJY-FM in Providence, R.I., broadcast paid commercials for the show.

Disc jockey Michael Gonsalves mentioned the performance on-air and introduced Great White to the audience. He perished in the ensuing inferno.

As for Anheuser-Busch, The Station seems to have staged a Budweiser promotion that night, including a Bud T-shirt giveaway.

Steven Minicucci, president of the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association, told me he and his colleagues will examine these companies to "see if there is a theory of liability there and consider naming them to begin discovery and see what potential role they may have played in leading up to this event." He argues they had a corporate responsibility to investigate The Station's fire safety, ticketing and overcrowding practices.

"Our sympathies are with the victims and families," stated Stephen Lambright, the brewing giant's general counsel. "Anheuser-Busch did not advertise, sponsor or promote the band that appeared at The Station that night and should not have been named in this lawsuit."

If Clear Channel loses this case, can it get sued for airing ads for restaurants whose entrees cause food poisoning? And if someone slides off a wobbly bar stool somewhere that serves Budweiser, must Anheuser-Busch dispatch carpenters to repair every rickety bar stool in America?

And why stop there? Since most victims drove to the show, why not sue Rhode Island for paving Cowsett Avenue, where The Station stood? Are those who sold asphalt to the state culpable? Where does it end?

Two parties do have plenty to explain: Great White for its pyrotechnics and The Station's proprietors for lacking sprinklers (a grandfathering provision exempted them from the relevant law) and possibly allowing overcrowding.

Of course, Jack Russell's Great White (the band's official name) told Pollstar's box-office analysts that it sold just $26,949 in tickets last year. The Station, meanwhile, was no Carnegie Hall. While its revenues remain undisclosed, co-owner Michael Derderian's public divorce records show that he invested $68,000 in the club and owed the IRS $28,000. This is not the portrait of a cash cow.

What so delights attorneys about Clear Channel and Anheuser-Busch is pockets deeper than Iraqi oil wells. Last year, Clear Channel's 1,225 radio stations alone generated $3.7 billion of the company's $8.4 billion in revenues. Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, toasted 2002 sales of $15.7 billion. No wonder they've been sued.

Rhode Island practices "joint-and-several liability." This usually means that if either company is, say, 1 percent responsible for this fiasco, it could pay 100 percent of damage awards. This would be a bonanza for survivors, but a body blow to fairness and common sense.

Still, this disaster's scope remains staggering. Flames and panic killed 99 and injured some 190. Of those, more than 100 were hospitalized. At this writing, 28 remain in hospital, 10 of them in critical condition.

Beyond their emotional pain, the bereaved must cope with the vanished wages of departed loved ones. Those still receiving treatment suffer physical pain amid mounting medical bills. Gut wrenching? Yes, but none of this diminishes the fact that faulting Clear Channel and Anheuser-Busch for this blaze turns tragedy to farce.

How, then, to assist the victims and their families? Philanthropy and voluntarism would help. Rhode Island officials hope to add a check-off box on state income tax forms so citizens may support victims' relief.

Anyone can give to The Station Nightclub Fire Fund at 229 Waterman Street, Providence, R.I. 02906. The United Way manages this charity for relatives and survivors. It already has raised some $2 million.

Rather than watch hearse-chasing lawyers turn tenuous links to this catastrophe into pipelines of ill-gotten cash, the nation's citizens and companies should open their checkbooks to aid these fellow Americans.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va.