Upcoming Nightclub Disaster Lawsuits

the scene of a deadly fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. Friday, Feb. 21, 2003. WPRI

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.


Anytime you have such avoidable tragedies, involving so many different actors, you are bound to have a blizzard of lawsuits. Like it or not, that's a reality in modern-day America. So, soon, the state courts of tiny Rhode Island and large Illinois will be awash in complaints and indictments, motions to dismiss and discovery requests, all stemming from last week's horrible nightclub disasters in Chicago and West Warwick.

The criminal and civil lawsuits in each venue will be inter-related -- what's relevant information in a negligence case against owner-operators will be relevant to any future prosecution of the main actors involved. And the cumulative effect of all this litigation will produce one significantly good result, regardless of whether dollars flow from one direction or another.

When the criminal and civil cases now looming are done, we all will know precisely what happened at the Station and at Epitome -- why, who is to blame and who is blameless. The resolution of the legal process won't give any of the family members of victims any "closure," whatever that means, but it ought to give them answers and perhaps a tiny bit of peace. And they can count on that peace a lot more surely than they ought to count on getting rich from some jury's damage award.

On the criminal side, toss aside for the moment the notion of federal charges resulting out of the blaze or the stampede. Federal law just isn't designed to handle every facet of potentially criminal conduct. And the type of events we've seen at the Station and Epitome are classic issues for state law to resolve.

Toss aside, too, the notion that the most serious criminal charges -- first- or second-degree murder charges -- will be brought against anyone involved in the Chicago or West Warwick incidents. So far there is no proof at all that anyone intentionally planned to start the stampede at Epitome or torch that stage background at the Station.

So that leaves us with the lesser lights of homicide law. If the evidence supports it, we are likely to see involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide charges brought against a few individuals. These charges would not require state or local prosecutors to prove that anyone intended to kill anyone. All prosecutors would have to prove is that the suspects, whomever they may turn out to be, acted recklessly or without proper caution or some other similar standard. We also could see forms of "reckless endangerment" charges or even obstruction of justice charges if it turns out that people were not initially as forthcoming as they should have been at the outset of the investigations.

On the civil side, there will almost certainly be a number of different defendants accused of a whole range of bad things both in Illinois and in Rhode Island. And then these defendants almost certainly will complicate the issues further by making allegations of their own (crossclaims and counterclaims, they call them) against each other and perhaps even the plaintiffs. Some of the defendants probably have very little money. Some probably have a lot. And I'll bet that in the end we'll see very little relationship between degrees of culpability and degrees of financial wherewithal -- the guiltiest of actors may be the poorest and vice versa.

In Illinois, we'll likely see civil lawsuits against the owners and operators of the Club, against the political and legal entity that is Chicago for whatever role it played in permitting the place, and, of course, against the people who allegedly triggered the stampede by spraying a chemical substance inside the packed room.

In Rhode Island, there probably will be an even wider circle of defendants. The band, Great White, of course, will lead the list but the owners and operators of the Station probably will be right there with them as civil defendants facing negligence or even "outrageous conduct" charges.

So too, however, will be the companies that manufactured some of the material inside the bar -- the material that went up so quickly and gave the victims so little time to get out. West Warwick, also, could be a defendant in a civil action although, like its Illinois counterpart, it can rest easy knowing that there are immunity statutes in place to minimize the amount of damages a public entity must pay for its own negligence. And covering all the civil litigation like a veneer will be concerns about any such case proceeding while a criminal case is underway. Civil cases tend to yield to criminal cases, if only because civil defendants usually don't have to testify if they are under a criminal cloud.

In short, the litigation now on its way will be chaotic. It will be ugly. It will be awfully difficult to follow and will take years and years to resolve. Many of the defendants who ultimately are declared liable may be penniless or may simply file for bankruptcy. But, ultimately, this litigation will generate an awful lot of sworn testimony, subject to cross-examination, relating to the events which led to the deaths of all those poor people.

And it is that testimony, in open court or in closed depositions, through written requests and otherwise, that will tell the story that has yet to be told.

By Andrew Cohen
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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