A state fire marshal who said he never noticed a major safety problem at a Rhode Island nightclub where a fire later killed 100 people can’t be sued because state law shields him from liability and because he didn’t ignite the blaze, his attorneys said this week.
Former West Warwick Fire Marshal Denis Larocque has said he never spotted flammable foam lining the walls of The Station club during an inspection. Sparks from a band’s pyrotechnic display ignited that foam on Feb. 20, 2003, triggering a massive blaze that trapped dozens of people inside an overcrowded roadside bar. About a third of those who died were from Massachusetts.
Larocque is among dozens of defendants named in a lawsuit filed in federal court by nearly 300 fire survivors and victim’s relatives. The lawsuit probably represents their last chance to hear Larocque publicly testify.
Last year, nightclub owners Michael and Jeffrey Derderian pleaded no contest to, and former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele pleaded guilty to, involuntary manslaughter charges, which means there will never be a criminal trial.
“Somehow we’re going to find justice,” said Dave Kane, whose 18-year-old son Nicholas O’Neill died in the fire. “Somehow we’re going to have these people get on the stand and say what they did.”
Larocque’s attorneys argue he should be dismissed from the lawsuit for two main reasons. First, they say a state law protects fire marshals from being sued for doing their jobs, so long as they act in good faith and without malice.
Second, they argue that Larocque can’t be blamed for the fire because other people broke the law. The Derderian brothers installed flammable foam. Biechele, the tour manager, never obtained the necessary permits before igniting the pyrotechnics.
Larocque visited the club several times and cited numerous fire code violations — but not the foam.
He told investigators after the fire he missed the foam because he was so distracted by a door near the stage that swung the wrong way, which he had previously cited. He also told a state grand jury that his inspections of the club had been focused on checking extinguishers, exit signs and emergency lighting.
“The best that plaintiffs can allege is that he failed to notice and cite the Station owners for yet another violation,” Larocque’s lawyers said. That mistake is not enough to overcome Larocque’s immunity, they added.
Monday was the deadline for the defendants to file motions to get out of the case. The plaintiffs will have an opportunity to respond before a judge rules on the matter.
In addition to Larocque, the state of Rhode Island joined the growing list of defendants seeking to be dismissed from the lawsuit.
The state says it bears no legal responsibility for Larocque’s failure to notice the flammable foam.
The state was initially dismissed from the case along with the then-state fire marshal, Irving J. Owens. But the federal judge overseeing the case agreed to reinsert the state as a defendant after the plaintiffs revised their complaint to allege that Larocque had been acting on behalf of the state.
In court papers Monday, the attorney general’s office also cited the state statute that shields fire marshals from liability.
It said Larocque had discretion in ordering fire code violations to be corrected and enjoyed “absolute immunity” for those decisions.
“If he gets dismissed, we have to be dismissed,” Jim Lee, the chief of the attorney general’s civil division, said in an interview.
Three members of Great White, the band whose pyrotechnics triggered the blaze, made the request last week, saying they had nothing to do with setting off the devices.
Other defendants seeking dismissal from the case include Brian Butler, a WPRI-TV cameraman who was at the club that night to shoot footage for a planned report on safety in public places. He denies the lawsuit’s claims that he impeded concertgoers who were trying to leave the building.
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