Ghost Ship victim’s family files lawsuit alleging negligence

The exterior of the former Ghost Ship, taken in February. Photo by Abner Hauge.

The exterior of the former Ghost Ship, taken in February. Photo by Abner Hauge.

“The interior of the 10,000 square-foot Ghost Ship was a death trap,” alleges the wrongful death lawsuit filed on March 24 by attorneys at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei and Goldman. Lawyers at the Los Angeles and San Francisco-based firm filed the civil suit with the Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of Robert Lapine, the father of Edmond Lapine II, who died in the December 2, 2016 fire. The fire took the lives of 36 people who were attending an electronic music dance party at the warehouse-turned-arts-space.

The suit was filed against Ghost Ship building owner Chor Nar Siu Ng, master tenant Derick Ion Almena and his wife Micah Allison, and several others whom the attorneys believe are responsible for the unsafe conditions that led to the fire.

According to the complaint, Edmond Lapine was one of over 100 patrons in the space on the night of the fire and couldn’t exit because of the “unsafe conditions and configuration of the warehouse.” Lapine “was trapped in the inferno inside,” the complaint continues, and “suffered catastrophic injuries from the fire, including smoke inhalation, while trying to escape.”

The complaint describes the Ghost Ship as “contain[ing] a maze of makeshift rooms, alcoves and partitions. It was cluttered with carvings, mannequins, paintings, artwork, scraps of wood, pianos, furniture, tapestries and at least one recreational vehicle trailer.”

The main allegations listed in the complaint are “negligence-wrongful death” and “negligence-survival action.” According to Lapine’s lawyer, Timothy Loranger, wrongful death complaints are made by the survivors of a deceased person against the parties they believe to have caused the death. Survival actions “survive [a person’s] death” and are filed on behalf of the deceased person directly, Loranger says. They are used to recoup medical bills and punitive damages, which then belong to the estate of the deceased person and are distributed to their next-of-kin. In this case, according to Loranger, any damages would be awarded to Lapine’s parents.

In the complaint, the lawyers ask for several kinds of damages, including those related to the loss of Edmond Lapine’s life, special damages for his medical expenses and funeral costs, loss of financial and emotional support Edmond would have provided to his family, and the cost of a trial.

The suit alleges that Ng, Almena, Allison, and several other parties are liable for failing to keep the building safe and alleges that Ng is liable for “negligent failure to evict.” Loranger said this term means that as a landlord, Ng had a duty to evict Almena and Allison for allegedly creating unsafe conditions in the building, yet allegedly failed to do so.

Ng’s civil attorneys, Raymond Meyer Jr., Stephen C. Dreher and Keith G. Bremer at the firm Bremer, Whyte, Brown and O’Meara, LLC, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

While Almena and Allison do have criminal defense attorneys, according to the Service List of Defendants provided by Baum Hedlund, those attorneys declined to comment because they are not representing Almena and Allison in the lawsuit filed by the Lapine family.

Attorneys at Baum Hedlund do not know if the two have retained civil attorneys to represent them in this matter.

Oakland North attempted to reach Almena and Allison by sending a letter to a street address listed as belonging to them, but as of press time, had received no response. A phone number associated with Almena at that street address was not in service. A message was left at the phone number associated with the Satya Yuga art collective he and Allison founded, but was not returned. The Ghost Ship Warehouse’s website has been taken down, as has Almena’s Facebook account.

In addition to suing the Ghost Ship building owner and its master tenant, the suit also lists Los Angeles-based record label 100% Silk and the label’s artist Joel Shanahan, known on stage as Golden Donna, who performed the night of the fire, as well as John Hrabko, the event’s promoter. The complaint alleges that Shanahan, Hrabko and 100% Silk “were somehow negligent or otherwise responsible” for the unsafe conditions that lead to Lapine’s death by facilitating the event and charging a $10 entrance fee to an event in a hazardous location.

Kimberly Miller, the label’s attorney, says the company had no connection with the show. “100% Silk was not aware of the event at the Ghost Ship and had no involvement with the event whatsoever,” Miller said. “They certainly did not book or promote it, as has been inaccurately reported elsewhere. Our understanding is that someone put the 100% Silk logo on a flyer for the event, but this was done without the knowledge or consent of 100% Silk.”

Hrabko’s attorney, Ory Cross of Valor Legal, said that his client “is a mislabeled defendant.  He bears no responsibility for this tragedy.” According to Cross, Hrabko “himself was seriously injured when he fell two stories onto his back after running into the burning building trying to save his friends and anyone he could.”

Cross also stated that “this case, at its core, is emblematic of the societal problems of housing and governmental immunity regarding the City of Oakland and its conduct. This case even in its early stages, speaks volumes on what should have occurred, i.e. necessary and proactive conduct on behalf of the City of Oakland and what the City of Oakland should have done to protect those most vulnerable.”

Shanahan did not respond to requests for comment.

The suit also names Daniel Lopez and Omar Vega, whose business neighbored the warehouse and claims that they provided electricity and a restroom for the dance party.

According to Daniel Lopez’s lawyer, S. Dean Ruiz, Lopez was wrongfully named in the suit. Ruiz says his client “never operated or had any association with” that business, which Ruiz said is run by Vega, Lopez’s brother-in-law and former business partner. According to Ruiz, Lopez was unaware that some assets belonging to the business or information on the business license were listed in his name. Ruiz said he expects that the allegations against his client “will likely be dismissed.”

No civil attorney is listed for Omar Vega on the Service List of Defendants provided by Baum Hedlund. The phone number of his former business has been disconnected and the shop appears to be closed. Oakland North mailed a letter to Vega’s home address requesting his comment on the allegations contained within the suit, but had not received a response as of press time.

There are also 200 “John Does” listed as defendants. These are placeholders for defendants whose identity or role in a suit is not yet determined. Speaking by phone, Loranger said a “complicated case” like the Ghost Ship fire “generally uncovers more people,” such as maintenance workers, management and other property owners, who could be held liable.

“I think logically the people who owned it, leased it, invited spectators to come inside—those people have liability,” Loranger said. “They created the danger by bringing people inside. Those people are obviously in the forefront of our mind.”

Loranger said that it “wouldn’t be appropriate to give a hierarchy of who is most culpable” at this point, as it’s still early in the investigation.

The City of Oakland’s final report on the fire was turned over to prosecutors for Alameda County on March 18, according to statements given to the East Bay Times. The District Attorney’s office has not yet announced how it will proceed with arrests or legal actions related to the fire.

Lapine, like many of the fire’s victims, was a member of the underground arts and music scene in Oakland. According to the blog post on the suit on the Baum Hedlund website, Lapine was born in Ogden, Utah. He was 34 when he passed away. He had studied French and creative writing at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and practiced photography. His love of music brought him to the Bay Area arts scene, where he frequented events like the electronic music performance at the Ghost Ship.

His family’s civil lawsuit isn’t the first to come out of the Ghost Ship tragedy. Suits have been filed on behalf of ten other victims of the fire so far: Griffen Madden, Michela Gregory, Jennifer Morris, Matthew Bohlka, Peter Wadsworth, Alex Ghassan, Vanessa Plotkin, Hanna Ruax, Feral Pines and Samuel Maxwell. Maxwell is the sole living plaintiff in the list and suffered from smoke inhalation while escaping the fire.

Madden and Gregory’s wrongful death suits, filed on December 23, 2016 against Ng, Almena, Allison, Lopez, Vega, 100% Silk, Hrabko and Shanahan, were the first filed against them. “They didn’t protect the public. They didn’t have the proper equipment. They were negligent,” said Mary Alexander, the attorney for Madden and Gregory’s suits, speaking of the defendants.

The suits filed by Alexander accuse the defendants of negligence for failing to prevent the “dangerous and unsafe conditions of the Ghost Ship, and the adjacent and surrounding premises.” Like the suit filed by Lapine’s family, Alexander’s suit also asks for damages related to the loss of life, medical expenses, and funeral expenses.

“We are not only seeking compensatory but punitive damages because of the disregard of the safety of the people who came to the event,” Alexander added.

These and the similar suits that followed have since been consolidated as a class action complaint. Alexander was named the liaison council­, meaning that she is the lead attorney in the class action suit and coordinates with other plaintiffs’ attorneys. According to Alexander, the role allows lawyers to coordinate and share documents and has allowed for her to arrange site visits to the Ghost Ship itself for attorneys and experts.

Loranger expects the Lapine suit to also be absorbed into the larger class action suit, as well.

For members of the Ghost Ship community, the legal response does not reflect the full range of issues the tragedy brought into focus. “The reality is that no lawsuit will change any of the conditions that caused this. At the same time, I think everyone in America can understand why any family who lost a loved one would decide to go after someone anyone—that is their personal choice,” said Tyler Hanson of We Artists of the Bay Area, an artists advocacy group formed in the aftermath of the fire.

Hanson continued, “Moving forward, if one really wanted to do something that would ensure that a disaster like this never happens again, you need to support the arts communities, not vilify them. Supporting and promoting safe creative spaces is what is needed now.”

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