First Lawsuits Filed Over Oakland Warehouse Fire

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The families of two victims who died in a massive fire at a warehouse in Oakland earlier this month have sued a slew of individuals, including the building’s owner and its master tenants, in the first civil lawsuits filed over the fire that killed 36 people attending an electronic music show at the warehouse.

In twin complaints filed in Alameda County Superior Court late Friday, the parents of victims Michela Gregory, 20, and Griffin Madden, 23, accused eight individuals of negligence, negligent failure to evict, premises liability and wrongful death, for allowing artists to use the warehouse as a live/work space and musicians to throw concerts there despite being zoned only for industrial use.

Named defendants include Chor Ng, the Ghost Ship’s owner, and her daughter Eva Ng;  master tenants Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, a married couple who lived in the warehouse with their three children and who sub-leased space to other tenants; Daniel Lopez and Omar Vega, who supplied electricity to the Ghost Ship from their auto shop next door through a hole in the wall; Joel Shanahan, who hosted the concert, and John Hrabko, the concert’s promoter.

The Gregorys and Maddens also filed claims against the city of Oakland and Alameda County, the first step in suing a government agency.

“Their contribution was a horrific tragedy,” Mary Alexander, an attorney for the two families, said in an interview Tuesday. “This was a death trap once the fire broke out and people couldn’t escape.”

In their 26-page lawsuits, the families claim Michela and Griffin, who were both attending the concert at the Ghost Shift the night it went up in flames, “suffered many minutes before they died.” The lawsuits do not give a cause of death.

According to the Gregory suit, the Alameda County Coroner’s bureau found Michela’s body in the arms of her boyfriend, Alex Vega. He had been trying to shield Michela from the flames.

The families describe the interior of the warehouse as a maze of “makeshift” rooms cluttered with flammable materials like art supplies and propane tanks, and at least one RV.

They say the 10,000-square-foot building had only two escape routes: a makeshift stairway at the front of the building made of pallets and scrap wood, and a staircase at the back of the building that was hidden behind a stage.

There were no sprinklers, fire alarms or fire extinguishers, and no emergency exits, according to the complaint.

Although the cause of the fire hasn’t been identified, the complaints cite a dangerous and overloaded electrical system as a likely culprit. The Ghost Ship’s power was supplied from the auto shop next door via a cable snaked through a hole in the wall, and extension cords and cables were strewn around the building. The electrical system threw off sparks and the circuit breakers blew out regularly. Unlicensed contractors, including Almena, had installed electrical boxes at the warehouse, the families say.

The Dec. 2 inferno that quickly engulfed the Ghost Ship wasn’t the first fire to break out in the building, the families say. A day earlier, a refrigerator ignited and the fire was put out by residents.

People had warned Almena that the Ghost Ship was a “death trap” and told him to buy fire extinguishers, according to the complaints.

Asked Tuesday whether all eight defendants could be held equally liable for Michela and Griffin’s deaths, Alexander said only a building’s owner is responsible for ensuring a building’s safety. But she emphasized that Hrabko and Shanahan had invited more than 100 people to the Ghost Ship the night it burned down despite the its safety hazards.

“That number of people not having a safe way to escape is just reprehensible,” she said.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced a criminal investigation into the fire earlier this month that could bring charges of manslaughter or murder. Her office has yet to file any charges.

The Gregorys and Maddens also say Oakland and Alameda County are liable for their children’s deaths. In their claims against the city, they say the Oakland fire and police departments and the planning and building department knew people lived at the Ghost Ship illegally but didn’t shut it down.

And despite media reports that the fire department never inspected the Ghost Ship, they say fire department employees held a concert there before the blaze.

“Therefore, it was well known to the city the illegal use and dangerous condition of the warehouse,” they say in the claims.

A representative for the Oakland City Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Alexander acknowledged that it will be difficult to sue the city and county given a California law that immunizes public entities from such claims.

“There are immunities for governments but it’s not insurmountable,” she said. “You have to try to show that they not only failed to act but they acted with negligence not to warn the public. It’s just horrific that this place was allowed to exist and a fire broke out and people were trapped.”

Michela, a student at San Francisco State University, had been studying child development when she died. Griffin, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was studying philosophy, Slavic languages and literature.

“It’s important that this doesn’t happen again,” Alexander said. “People need to be protected.”

The families seek general, special and punitive damages. They’re represented by Alexander, Jennifer Fiore and Sophia Aslami of Mary Alexander & Associates in San Francisco.

Almena is represented by Tony Serra of Pier 5 Law Offices, also in San Francisco. He did not return a request for comment.