I was reading about this fire a few days ago, and aside from it being an unbearably sad loss of many lives, it did throw up an interesting study of America’s obsession with litigation and blame. 

After the incident, the victims and bereaved families issued lawsuits against an astonishing clutch of defendants. Obviously, the nightclub owners and the people who supplied their surprisingly flammable insulation foam were in the frame. So were the band and their crew, who lit the pyrotechnics that caused the blaze. The local council, whose inspector made good faith errors in his application of the local fire codes to the building, were also blamed.

However, there were also some surprising other defendants — most of which stretch credulity entirely and make a mockery of the American legal system, including:

  • a local TV company who actually had a crew on site filming a piece on nightclub safety at the time. They were apparently sued on the basis that their cameraman obstructed people and didn’t help save lives. (Secondly, I don’t understand why any decision by him not to risk his own life by saving others results in liability on his employer);
  • Clear Channel, who owned the radio station that sponsored the show; and
  • Anheuser-Busch. The brewer who supplied drinks sold in the club. Seriously. They were sued on the basis that they provided “sponsorship” for the event (actually all they seem to have done is provided a Budweiser banner) and not doing due diligence on whether it was safe or not.

This site has a breakdown of who ended up paying what.

It demonstrates the “deep pockets” theory to perfection. The biggest payers were, remarkably, the broadcasters. Companies who sponsored or filmed the show ended up paying more to the victims than those who made the dangerously flammable foam. Beer producers and distributors who merely allowed their brands to be used in association with the event ended up paying over 10% of the settlement.

Less surprisingly, given that they were mostly individuals, the band crew who directly caused the fire, and the management and owners of the club, contributed relatively little, apparently because their insurance caps were low.

It’s remarkable that America allows its big corporations to be robbed in this manner. How on Earth did a TV station end up being the biggest compensator for negligent pyrotechnics igniting dangerous materials installed in a poorly managed club which had not been properly policed by government inspectors?