Oakland warehouse fire: Judge rules city had ‘mandatory duty’ to ensure safety at Ghost Ship
The Ghost Ship warehouse were 36 people died on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, still boarded up as seen from East 12th Street in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
By David DeBolt | firstname.lastname@example.org | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: November 14, 2017 at 9:18 am | UPDATED: November 14, 2017 at 12:11 pm
OAKLAND — Oakland had a duty to enforce building and fire codes at the Ghost Ship warehouse, according to a significant court ruling that could leave the city liable for 36 deaths in the horrific Dec. 2 fire.
The Nov. 8 decision by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman pierces through broad immunities protecting California cities from civil lawsuits in which workers botched inspections of a building or failed to do so.
In the tentative ruling, Seligman sided with attorneys for the families of the victims and said their civil lawsuit “exhaustively” documented the dangerous conditions of the Fruitvale district artist collective.
“The plaintiffs allege the city ‘knew in advance’ of the fire of various unpermitted uses and dangers, including a ‘likely risk of fire’ and that ‘in the evert (sic) of a fire occupants of the building were likely to die or suffer serious bodily injury due to the many violations of mandated building codes and safety provisions, all of which the city was aware of an required to enforce at all relevant times,’” Seligman wrote.
City spokeswoman Karen Boyd referred questions to the City Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Records show Oakland police, firefighters and building inspectors visited the building before the December inferno, sometimes going inside to see the labyrinth-like collective stuffed with pianos and a maze of extension cords where more than 20 people illegally lived.
Screen shot of the body camera footage of Oakland Police officer Hector Chavez responding to noise complaints at the Ghost Ship warehouse on March 1, 2015. (Oakland Police Department)
One firefighter admitted to attending a holiday party held on the second floor of the Ghost Ship in 2014 for faculty of his wife’s school, according to court records. In March 2015, a police officer shut down a wild rave there, telling partygoers he would report them to the city. The City Attorney’s Office is looking into a report by this newspaper in which multiple eyewitnesses said firefighters stopped by a September 2014 party at the warehouse. Yet a fire inspection was never performed at the warehouse, according to city officials.
Attorneys for the city argued any visits to the Ghost Ship amounted to an inspection. California government code shields public entities from liability based on a failure to inspect.
Mark Gergen, a UC Berkeley law professor who reviewed Seligman’s ruling, said the judge is “finding a rather creative exception to the immunity rule.”
“What the judge is doing is not alleging they were negligent in inspection but alleging they knew about this” and “it’s a failure to act,” Gergen said.
Oakland can appeal the court decision.
“I fully expect the city to file an appeal at some point,” Bobby Thompson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said. “They feel they should be given a pass for these types of cases. We get to try to prove to the court that they failed to perform their mandatory duties under the law.”
For now, the city of Oakland remains a defendant in the massive civil lawsuit. Ghost Ship landlord Chor Ng, master tenant Derick Almena, Alameda County, PG&E and others are also listed as defendants.