Safety First! Premises Liability and the Oakland “Ghost Ship” Fire

posted in: Personal Injury | 0

I’ve got to do something! My older daughter is a member of the community that suffered this devastating loss of life. I’ve been to “house shows” in West Oakland where her band played in performance spaces carved out of commercial buildings. And people lived there too.

The last three trials I’ve done have been premises liability cases. In each, there was a dangerous condition that caused my clients to fall and suffer injury. One case involved a pull-down attic ladder used to access an improved attic being used as living space. Another was a stairway with an inadequate handrail, and the third was a ramp that was too steep for a walkway. All of the cases involved building code violations.

The reason for those code requirements is to provide a safe means of leaving the building in case of an emergency, like a fire. I understand that now in a way that I could not have before. Now I know it’s a matter of life or death.

I’ve handled a lot of premises liability cases – where the owner or occupier or controller of  property is responsible for injuries caused by a unsafe condition. I’ve also handled numerous wrongful death cases. But I have yet to do a wrongful death case involving premises liability. Not yet.

Today I heard from a young man I believe that, contrary to reports in the press (so far) that the owner of the Ghost Ship warehouse was not aware of the conditions inside the warehouse or that people were living there, the owner and her family did know what was happening there! They knew, and rather than deal with the people living in the tinderbox in their building, they said it was easier for them to just wait for the lease to expire.

Hearing this, and believing it, is disturbing. As much as I know about how people cut corners and try to save money, and make more of it, often putting profit before safety, I still want to believe people do the right thing. After a 34-year career as a trial lawyer suing companies and people who choose to allow their products, property, and conduct to be unsafe because its easier and more profitable, I still want to believe. Is it any wonder that jurors want to believe too?

My job as a trial lawyer is to show the jury what really happened. To help them see plainly that the defendant did not do the right thing, and caused injury. It is very important to the community that negligent property owners are held responsible. Without responsibility and accountability there is no safety, no motivation or encouragement to do the right thing.

In the days that come, some personal injury lawyers like me will have the opportunity to help someone who has suffered a loss in this fire. Those lawyers will show how the property owner willfully ignored the safety of the people living in the Ghost Ship, violating their legal duty to keep their property safe. I hope I get the chance to be one of those lawyers.

That would be something.