- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Walter Castle Jr. was so outraged that he broke down when he learned that Rhode Island law does not allow for anyone to be criminally charged for the burns he suffered in a deadly nightclub fire almost a year ago.

“I actually started crying,” said Mr. Castle, whose throat and lungs were so severely burned he says he can no longer work factory jobs because he has trouble breathing.

The Feb. 20 blaze killed 100 persons and injured Mr. Castle and about 200 others as flames roared through The Station nightclub. Sparks from the band Great White’s pyrotechnic display set fire to foam used as soundproofing on the walls.

Involuntary manslaughter charges were filed Tuesday against club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White’s tour manager Dan Biechele for the 100 who died.

But Attorney General Patrick Lynch said he couldn’t pursue charges on behalf of the injured because there is no criminal statute in Rhode Island to prosecute people who cause injury as a result of criminal negligence.

Mr. Lynch said he plans to do something about it by proposing legislation to expand the law’s coverage to injuries. According to his office, about a dozen states have criminal negligence statutes for cases when injury is involved.

Survivors “are rightfully and understandably upset about this sorely lacking statutory mechanism, as am I,” Mr. Lynch said.

But David White-Life, a Boston attorney at a firm specializing in negligence cases, said criminalizing negligence that causes injury could also have unintended consequences. For example, it would make it illegal for a doctor to hurt someone while performing surgery .

“Just seeking to punish people for negligent conduct causing injury would be a fairly major expansion of the law,” Mr. White-Life said. “You can be sure the state doesn’t want to make crimes out of every negligent act. Otherwise, people who just commit ordinary negligence are going to be prosecuted for that.”

Mr. Lynch’s office and state lawmakers are still researching how “criminal negligence, causing injury,” could be defined in a state law. State Sen. Joseph Polisena said he plans to work with the attorney general to introduce legislation next year.

Michelle Spence, 29, of Lincoln, was thankful for the criminal charges that were filed, but like Mr. Castle, she wished someone could be criminally blamed for the burns that scarred her arms and caused her to miss months of work.

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