Oakland to pay $32.7M to settle deadly warehouse fire suits

Oakland will pay $32.7 million to settle lawsuits filed over a 2016 fire that killed 36 people at an illegally converted warehouse dubbed the Ghost Ship.

Posted: Jul 17, 2020 9:08 AM

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Oakland will pay $32.7 million to settle lawsuits filed over a 2016 fire at an illegally converted warehouse dubbed the Ghost Ship that killed 36 people, the city announced Thursday.

The City Council authorized settlements of lawsuits filed by the families of 32 victims. The amount also includes more than $9 million for Sam Maxwell, who survived the blaze but “will live with severe, lifelong injuries and major medical expenses,” a city statement said.

“This was a horrific tragedy that deeply impacted every corner of our community,” said the statement from the city attorney’s office.

The settlement is one of the largest in city history but Paul Matiasic, an attorney for five families, called it “insignificant.”

“There’s no amount of money in the world that can bring their loved ones back,” he told the East Bay Times. His clients contended the city was negligent and should have red-tagged the building.

The city doesn’t acknowledge any liability in the agreement but decided to settle because of the possible legal costs, the statement said.

The settlement does not include about a dozen people who lived at the warehouse and were a part of the lawsuit, attorney Mary Alexander told the newspaper.

“These people are like wildfire victims, they had to run for their lives through smoke and flames and lost their homes, many of them displaced for a long time,” Alexander said.

On Dec. 2, 2016, fire swept through the warehouse during an electronic music party. The industrial building had illegally been turned into a residence for artists and an event venue.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, authorities said.

Prosecutors contend that Derick Almena, the master tenant on the warehouse lease, was criminally negligent when he converted and sublet the space. They charged him with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter but a judge declared a mistrial last fall. His retrial is scheduled for October.

The blaze killed many young people trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.

The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, although some lawsuits said there were serious electrical problems with the building.

Almena’s attorneys argued city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards in the warehouse. City officials had said the building hadn’t been inspected for three decades, and when inspectors did visit the site in November 2016, they were unable to enter to investigate a report of illegal construction.

Almena, who had been jailed since 2017, was released earlier this year over coronavirus concerns after dozens of cases were reported at the facility where he was held. He is confined to home without written court approval.

A co-defendant, Max Harris, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges last year and no longer lives in the state.

The building’s owner, Chor Ng, wasn’t charged with a crime.

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