Crafty attorneys are panning for gold among the ashes of “The Station” nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. That is where indoor fireworks at a Great White concert set a bar ablaze and unleashed mayhem last February 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 March 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 K. 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
Clear Channel and Anheuser-Busch would have to devote considerable resources just to get such actions thrown out of court. It would cost either company “tens of thousands, probably less than $100,000″ to prepare a motion to dismiss such a case, estimates Mark W. Smith, a Manhattan litigator and vice-president of the New York Federalist Society. Of course, things quickly can deteriorate. “If that motion to dismiss is denied and you go to discovery,” Smith adds, “that’s at least hundreds of thousands of dollars and likely more than a million. You get into depositions, documents and so on.” Also, managers must stop creating jobs, selling radio time, and brewing beer to spend hours speaking with attorneys in conference rooms.
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 of the fire’s victims drove to the show, why not sue the state of Rhode Island for paving Cowsett Avenue, where The Station stood? Are those who sold asphalt to the state culpable? And what about the rich oil companies that marketed petroleum products to the asphalt factory? 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.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.