Attorney: 'People will never forget' Rhode Island's tragic nightclub fire

In this Feb. 20, 2003, aerial file photo, authorities work at the scene of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., where more than 100 people died. Ten years later, the imprint of the fire remains - including in the state's strict fire code, passed soon after the blaze.
In this Feb. 20, 2003, aerial file photo, authorities work at the scene of The Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., where more than 100 people died. Ten years later, the imprint of the fire remains - including in the state's strict fire code, passed soon after the blaze.

The Station nightclub fire of Feb. 20, 2003, spawned a massive civil lawsuit involving hundreds of parties and brought a new awareness of the importance of complying with fire safety laws.

Ten years later, New London attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr., who represented the estates of three Connecticut residents who died in the fire and three concertgoers who were injured, looked back on what he said was an extraordinary case.

"There's no question that people, at least in the northeast United States, will ever forget the Station fire case," Reardon said. "Nothing like that will ever happen again."

One hundred people died and more than 200 were injured when a pyrotechnics display during a Great White concert ignited sound-proofing material inside the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub.

The next day, the world watched the tragedy unfold on film, since WPRI, a TV station for which nightclub co-owner Jeffrey Derderian worked, was on scene for a story on, of all topics, nightclub safety.

The lawsuit was a so-called mass tort case involving 329 plaintiffs and 48 defendants. The case was settled in 2010 for more than $176 million.

Reardon said he got involved in the case early, when it wasn't clear who would be sued.

"When we went into this, recognizing the sheer number of people who died or had been seriously injured, there was a concern that there would not be enough money to adequately compensate these people," he said.

The 500-page complaint included 153 exhibits and named 47 defendants plus 10 "John Does," Reardon said, because it was possible that additional defendants would surface as the case proceeded.

"We knew that American Foam Corp., which provided the foam, and some other corporations appeared to be more or less liable than others depending on the facts," he said.

Reardon was the Connecticut representative on a plaintiff's committee, which also included attorneys from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"We were able to uncover, through a lot of depositions and discovery and litigation, a number of defendants who had potential liability," Reardon said.

The final list of defendants included everyone from the broadcasting companies involved in the TV production, the foam manufacturers and sellers, the makers and sellers of the fireworks and Sheetrock, the installers of the club's fire alarm system, concert promoters, the tour manager, the tour bus operator, the band members, the City of West Warwick and the State of Rhode Island.

The next step was to determine how the settlement would be distributed.

"We knew there would be a corpus of money coming at us and we had to decide how we would divide the monies," Reardon said.

Reardon helped recruit Duke University professor Francis E. McGovern to serve as a special master. Reardon and McGovern had met at Camp Lejeune when both served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1970s. Reardon had worked with McGovern in the 1980s in another notorious mass tort case involving a defective birth control device called the Dalkon Shield.

McGovern traveled from North Carolina to meet with victims as he devised a point system to help determine the distribution of the settlements funds. He returned to New England several times as he refined the system.

The final product, approved by a federal judge, awarded a set of points to family members of those who died, depending on their age at the time of the fire, their education and income levels and other factors. Those who survived the fire received award amounts based on the severity of their injuries and total medical expenses.

"We had the money, and we had a lot of people who were grieving," Reardon said. "We had to make sure as best we could that the formula was satisfying for them. I know my clients were satisfied."

McGovern did not accept any money for his work, according to published reports.

The individual award amounts remain confidential, though The Providence Journal has reported that the largest award, $12.3 million, went to a severely injured person and the smallest awards, $25,435 each, went to 14 people who were in the club but were not physically injured.

Nancy Noyes of New London, who was injured in the fire and was represented by Reardon, declined to divulge her settlement but did say she spent about $250,000 buying and renovating a house.

Reardon is disappointed that even today, performers "can't resist the temptation" to use pyrotechnics during indoor concerts.

"Look what happened recently in Brazil," he said. "That was another pyrotechnic performance and the ceiling caught fire."

Closer to home, he said, the Station fire influenced fire safety laws and put business owners on notice.

"I've heard from people who run restaurants and bars that it was a rather distinct moment in their responsibility as an owner of a public place," he said. "Now, if you even want to do the most insignificant form of pyrotechnics, there have to be firemen stationed backstage on both sides, with fire extinguishers ready to go."

Sprinkler systems have to be up to date and buildings must have adequate and accessible exits. At the Station that night, a door to the right of the stage had been locked because the operators didn't want people to sneak in without paying the cover charge, Reardon said. Customers stampeded to the front door, causing a deadly bottleneck.


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