Lawsuit Against Rhode Island Town Over Deadly Club Fire Can Proceed, Judge Rules

Negligence suit filed by more than 250 people who were injured or lost family members in February 2003 blaze.

The lawsuits over the Great White fire that left 100 dead and more than 200 injured almost three years ago at a Rhode Island nightclub aren’t over yet.

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a massive negligence case against the town of West Warwick, which was filed by more than 250 people who were injured or lost family members in the February 2003 blaze, including the girlfriend of late Great White guitarist Ty Longley (see “Major New Lawsuit Filed Against Great White, Others For Fatal Club Fire” ).

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux granted a motion to dismiss the state of Rhode Island from liability in the case, declaring the state immune, but said that he would not do the same for the town of West Warwick, since the fire could have been the fault of local officials. West Warwick fire inspector Denis Larocque, town finance director Malcolm Moore and police officer Anthony Bettencourt, who was assigned to work at the Station on the night of the fire (and later received a Medal of Valor for saving people from the fire), allegedly failed to enforce fire-safety regulations at the Station, and those inactions could have resulted in an “increased possibility of fire and increased hazard to the general public.” The allegations, if proven, “are sufficient to support a finding of proximate cause.”

Lagueux found that the local officials could have allowed the club to become overcrowded, could have failed to inspect the building for safety violations, could have failed to enforce regulations governing the use of fireworks and could have failed to enforce a myriad of fire-safety laws and standards. While those actions would not necessarily cause the blaze itself, since there were “negligent and criminal acts of others” that contributed to the situation, it doesn’t mean that the town isn’t also liable, the judge wrote in his ruling, since the actions of others didn’t break a “causal chain,” but were instead “the natural and probable consequence” of the town’s negligence and “could have reasonably been anticipated.”