Ghost Ship victims’ families sue PG&E
Suit claims ‘blatant disregard’ for residents’ safety
Families of the victims killed in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on Tuesday, saying the utility supplied power to the doomed artist space with “blatant disregard” for the safety of the people in the building.
The lawsuit — a master complaint consolidating several civil cases against the building’s owner, manager and others connected to the property — is the latest legal action stemming from the Dec. 2 fire that killed 36, the state’s deadliest fire in more than a century.
PG&E was named as a defendant in the case for the first time Tuesday.
“PG&E exhibited a willful and blatant disregard for the safety of this building and the
people that lived and visited there,” attorney Mary Alexander, who represents the families, said Tuesday.
The lawsuit alleges utility workers had installed several smart meters in the buildings adjoining the Ghost Ship warehouse at 1305 31st Ave. in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, and they should have known that the building’s electrical system was “dangerous, defective, out-of-code compliance, and an imminent threat to the health, safety and lives of the owners, occupants, customers and invitees of those structures.”
Alexander said attorneys walked through the burned-out remnants of the warehouse and observed the serpentine system of electrical cords that brought power through various holes and channels into the ramshackle space.
That power allegedly came from a transformer box inside a neighboring auto body shop. Four properties, including the auto body shop and Ghost Ship, shared one electrical meter.
The blaze erupted during an unpermitted electronic music event and quickly overwhelmed the building, which had been illegally converted into an artist collective. Scores of people inside escaped, but the 36 victims trapped inside all died from smoke inhalation, officials said.
Investigators narrowed the origin of the fire to a shared kitchen area in the rear of the warehouse’s first floor. Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they were looking into the building’s electrical system as part of their investigation into the cause of the fire.
The Alameda County district attorney’s office is conducting a separate criminal probe into the fire.
PG&E officials released a statement on Tuesday, but they said they had not seen the lawsuit.
“We can say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of this tragic event,” said Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokeswoman. “We’ve reviewed our records and over the last 10-plus years, we have no reports of electric theft or any other anomalies from this location or the adjacent premises. We’re fully cooperating with authorities as they investigate this tragic event.”
Co-plaintiff Leisa Askew, whose 22-yearold daughter, Cash Askew, died in the fire, spoke to reporters on Tuesday outside the Alameda County Superior Courthouse near Lake Merritt.
“I don’t have any faith that this will bring my child back, but 36 people died,” she said, while holding a framed picture of her daughter. “I just can’t stand by and let that happen.”
Tuesday’s master complaint seeks to streamline civil action filed in the months after the fire by several plaintiffs represented by various law firms.
Also accused of negligence are building owner Chor Ng, master tenant Derick Almena, event promoter Jon Hrabko, music performer Joel Shanahan (known as Golden Donna) and others.
Attorneys for the victims’ families have separately filed legal claims against the city of Oakland, Alameda County and the state of California related to the tragedy. They have until June 2 — six months after the fire — to file additional claims.
A legal claim is a necessary legal procedure when bringing actions against a government entity and often precedes a lawsuit.
City officials have faced criticism for not stepping in before the fire. Police officers and building inspectors had been to the site before, but apparently didn’t inform fire inspectors of the dangers inside. Despite a fire station being just a block away, the building wasn’t in the Fire Department’s database and no one had ever stepped foot on the premises for a formal inspection.
“The city is absolutely culpable in what happened here,” said Christopher Dolan, another attorney for the families. “They had affirmative action to shut it down, but they chose to turn a blind eye.”
Leisa Askew, holds a picture of her daughter, Cash, with her attorney outside an Alameda County courthouse Tuesday.
Attorney Mary Alexander speaks in front of members of the families of 10 of the victims who died in the Dec. 2 fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale District outside the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse near Lake Merritt.