Deadline approaches to file claim for Ghost Ship fire

Mourners gathered outside the Ghost Ship warehouse days after it burned to the ground. The city of Oakland may be held accountable for not inspecting it. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

On the night of Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, 36 people perished, almost all young adults, and many more suffered physical and psychological injuries in a horrific fire that consumed the Ghost Ship building in the Fruitvale District of Oakland.

The fire started near midnight during an electronic music show in the converted warehouse. It was the deadliest structural blaze in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

I am working with a group of lawyers that is investigating the cause and legal responsibility for these deaths. As the investigation evolves, and evidence is collected, a portrait emerges which disturbingly reveals a breakdown in the institutions which we look to protect the public from such tragedies. Documents obtained from public records requests show that the Oakland fire, police and building inspection departments were aware that this dangerous structure was being used as an unlicensed music venue and cabaret as well as an unlawful and dangerous residential dwelling. Yet, they did nothing despite numerous statutory safety mandates that they either cause the structure to be brought up to code or to close it down until it was made safe. As a result, 36 people died.

Prior to the fire, the Oakland Fire Department stated that it inspected all commercial structures annually for safety compliance. The Alameda Civil Grand Jury, according to its own website, “…acts as a ‘watch-dog’ by investigating the workings and efficiencies of county and local governments.” In the 2013-14 session, two years prior to the fatal fire, the Grand Jury investigated the OFD’s efforts to conduct fire inspections of commercial buildings. The Grand Jury outlined the OFD’s responsibilities for fire prevention, emergency services and emergency preparedness, which are supposed to be accomplished through the Fire Prevention Bureau: a branch of OFD that manages inspection programs related to compliance with state and municipal fire codes.

As authorized by state law, OFD was supposed to conduct annual commercial fire inspections of businesses within the city. In Oakland, commercial inspections were supposed to encompass inspection of egress systems, fire sprinklers, fire/smoke alarms, combustible storage and electrical components.

The Grand Jury found that of 8,000 annual inspection attempts, approximately 6,000 facilities were accessed and an additional 4,000 commercial occupancies went un-inspected due to “competing OFD priorities.” The Grand Jury found that “the city of Oakland’s website stated that the commercial inspection program mandates annual inspections of all commercial facilities.”

This provides the public with the false impression that all commercial businesses are inspected annually. The Grand Jury learned that approximately 4,000 (out of approximately 11,000) go un-inspected each year. They went on to state that “the city of Oakland must provide accurate information to the public (on its website and in documents) about the frequency of inspections and number of commercial fire inspections completed.”

The city never corrected these deficiencies and did not change their website stating that they annually conducted inspections until after the Ghost Ship fire. Indeed, the evidence shows that the Ghost Ship building was never inspected in the decades before the fire.

The investigating attorneys have determined that a basis exists for the city of Oakland to be held accountable for its failures to adequately inspect and protect the public from the dangers presented in the Ghost Ship. This fire should have been prevented by the city meeting its responsibilities to the public, and unless they are held accountable this tragedy will likely repeat itself. We also believe grounds exist for bringing claims against the County of Alameda and State of California.

California law requires that any party which seeks to advance its legal rights against the government must file a claim within six months of the date of injury, here Dec. 2, 2016. The failure to do so bars the ability to bring subsequent legal action. (There are some exceptions for a “late claim” to be filed.) Filing a claim does not mean that someone will sue but preserves their right to do so.

If you know someone who was injured, or loved ones of someone who died in the fire, please alert them of this important date. Claim forms can be found at the city of Oakland’s website or my firm will help in completing one.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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