OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A California judge on Thursday allowed claims to proceed against the city of Oakland over its failure to inspect and shut down the Ghost Ship warehouse before a massive fire claimed the lives of 36 people last year.
Alameda County Superior Judge Brad Seligman overruled objections by the city to claims of government tort liability, dangerous condition and survival, concluding it may be partly responsible for the Golden State’s deadliest structure fire in almost 15 years.
“This is not an easy case on any side,” Seligman said at a hearing in downtown Oakland before concluding the city had a duty to enforce its building and safety codes.
Oakland is just one of more than 20 defendants in a consolidated negligence and wrongful death lawsuit brought by family members and friends of the people who died at the Fruitvale-area warehouse while attending a dance party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016. Also named as defendants are the building’s owner and master tenants, Alameda County, and Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the state’s biggest utilities.
The plaintiffs, represented by lead liaison attorney Mary Alexander, claim the city failed to inspect and shut down the building for not being up to code, even though police and fire personnel visited multiple times before the fire and knew it was unsafe.
They say the building was a “fire trap” cluttered with debris, and that it got its power from an adjacent building via an overloaded cable snaked through a hole in the wall. It lacked overhead sprinklers and emergency lighting and had only two rickety stairwells, one of which had been blocked off before the party, according to the plaintiffs.
Attendees died of smoke inhalation, trapped on the second floor.
On Thursday, Raymond Marshall, an attorney with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton who represents Oakland, insisted state law immunizes local governments over failures to inspect a building, identifying safety code violations and reporting and abating them.
Because Oakland’s police and fire employees had gone to the building for reasons unrelated to inspections, the city isn’t liable for their failure to report the substandard conditions or shut down the building, Marshall said.
“Merely observing does not create any kind of duty,” he concluded.
Seligman, however, was not persuaded.
“I don’t agree that inspection swallows everything,” the judge said.
“There may well be immunity. But based on what I have in front of me right now,” Oakland must remain in the case, he added.
In September, Seligman refused to dismiss PG&E from the lawsuit by finding the failure to install a separate electrical meter on the Ghost Ship may make the utility partly responsible for the fire.
The lawsuit accuses PG&E of failing to install a sub-meter on the Ghost Ship and two adjoining buildings, and of not monitoring the flow of power to the buildings through the single meter that had been installed next door.
Had PG&E monitored the flow of power, the plaintiffs say, it would have noticed the dangerous power surges caused by overloaded electrical lines supplying the Ghost Ship, which hosted dozens of concerts and as many as 25 residents looking for cheap rent, all illegally. That would have triggered an inspection and termination of service before the fire could happen, according to the plaintiffs.
Although the complaint does not identify what started the fire, it suggests the overloaded lines were responsible. Federal investigators, however, were unable to pinpoint a cause.
In June, Alameda County prosecutors charged Ghost Ship master lessee Derick Almena and tenant Max Harris, who planned the party, with involuntary manslaughter for allowing people to live and attend events at the warehouse without ensuring it was up to code.
Almena and Harris pleaded not guilty in September. They each face 60 years in prison if convicted.
A preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to go to trial in the criminal case is set for Dec. 4.