On November 30th, BU Law alum and professor John Barylick gave a presentation about the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island. Barylick’s firm co-lead the plaintiff team that represented all the victims in the civil litigation. The talk was fascinating and a remarkable representation of the power of well-conducted research and dedication to finding justice after a tragedy. For those who may be unfamiliar, the Station Nightclub fire took place in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003. The club was hosting a rock band that set off pyrotechnics during the show. The pyrotechnics lit the foam on the walls of the club that was being used as acoustic padding to absorb the noise. The whole club lit up like a tinder box, and any patrons who were not evacuated within 90 seconds from the fire starting were trapped and killed. The fire killed 100 people and left over 180 grievously injured. The padding on the walls is now often referenced as “solid gasoline.”
Barylick’s team was facing a difficult task as the three main culprits of the fire, the two nightclub owners and the band manager, were insolvent. Not only that, but many believed the criminal proceedings let them all off a bit too easily. With a tragedy so large and victims with lifelong pain and suffering, finding justice in the form of monetary compensation was the only route left. This was especially relevant for the victims who were still alive and would be grappling with exorbitant medical bills and daily pain for the rest of their lives.
The team conducted masterful detective work to trace back all of the conditions that contributed to this perfect storm of a disaster. They discovered the fire marshal’s questionable increase of the club’s capacity limit and his failure to cite the yards and yards of foam padding on the wall. They used what was left of the foam (with the help of a performer who discovered pieces of the foam in his guitar case) to determine the manufacturers and used the manufacturer’s own advertisements to prove that using the foam as acoustic padding on walls was foreseeable and perhaps encouraged. They used the videos from the news reporter who was there filming stock footage (brought in by the club owners) to not only recreate the final moments of the club but also indicate that the camera man likely impeded the patrons’ ability to exit the club quickly. They used fire protection engineers to conduct tests on the foam padding in order to exhibit just how deadly and dangerous the club was. And perhaps most chillingly was the audio footage they recovered from the body of one of the victims, whose hobby was to make bootleg cassette tapes of rock shows. All of these pieces and more helped recreate the conditions and mistakes that led to this tragedy. Most importantly, they helped reveal who was at fault for contributing to this tragedy.
After determining who could be held liable, Barlyick’s team faced two more difficult tasks. The first was getting all the victims to agree to a settlement system. The next was either securing settlement or taking to trial those who were at fault. For the first task the team enlisted expert help in the form of Duke University law professor Francis E. McGovern, who worked out a system of distributing the funds that were secured. They then had to get each victim and each victim’s family to agree to the system-before any money was even acquired. The decision had to be unanimous among all victims and their representatives, which totaled over 300 people. After getting everyone to agree, the team went into settlement talks with each company or representative who they believed were at fault. Defendants ranged from the State of Rhode Island to the media conglomerate parent company of the news reporter’s local station. The settlement talks and the detective work paid off, as every defendant settled and not one case went trial. In the end, Barylick’s team secured over $176 million for the victims.
Barylick’s talk was fascinating because it perfectly exemplified how tort litigation is conducted in real life. It showed how much time and effort is needed to explore every single avenue of possibility to create the fullest and most complete picture of what happened. It showed the interdisciplinary nature of law and how fields of engineering, science, forensics, technology, sociology, and more can play very important roles in a case. The most striking aspect of the talk was how gracefully Barylick and his team handled this tragedy in regards to respecting the victims and their families. Not once during the talk did one forget the human element of this case and how devastating of a disaster this was.
This talk resonated with me, as my boyfriend is a fire protection engineer and comes from a long line of fire chiefs and marshals. It was an interesting way to see both of our worlds intersecting in such a remarkable manner. It also taught me the importance of paying attention: paying attention to one’s environment, paying attention to the role one plays in their job, paying attention to the duty one has to ensure safety in whatever capacity they can. It was easy to see how Barylick poured every ounce of energy he had into this trial and how tirelessly the team worked to secure justice. They had to think outside of the box and go from lawyers to detectives to fire protection engineers- and more. This sets an example for the type of lawyer I hope to be in the future, in whatever field I end up in. I hope to be as dedicated as Barylick and his team in the pursuit of justice.
Barylick has published a book about the fire, titled Killer Show. It is available for purchase, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in law, science, or the way our justice system works after complicated mass tort tragedies. It is well written, comprehensive, and humbling.