- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

WEST WARWICK, R.I., March 5 (UPI) — The first two of what could be hundreds of wrongful-death lawsuits have been filed as a result of Rhode Island's nightclub fire.

The state Superior Court, meanwhile, has selected a "point person" to manage the multiple lawsuits, the Providence Journal reported Wednesday.

Nearly 100 people died and almost 190 others were injured Feb. 20 when a fast-moving fire consumed The Station rock concert club in West Warwick, R.I. Estimates for total liability claims stemming from the fire have reached $1 billion.

Meanwhile, two of the four surviving members of the Great White heavy metal band whose pyrotechnics touched off the inferno appeared Tuesday before a grand jury investigating possible criminal charges.

The first suits were filed in Providence County Superior Court Tuesday on behalf of two families who lost loved ones in the fire. Personal injury attorney Brian Cunha said he expects to file suits on behalf of four more families this week.

Cunha said it was important to file the suits early.

"The breadwinners are gone in both of these families, and the children have to be supported," Cunha said. "As far as I'm concerned, the sooner the better."

At the top of the list of defendants are Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, brothers who owned The Station, and the surviving members of the band and its manager who actually triggered the fire when he set off "sparklers" that turned flammable soundproofing into a raging inferno.

Also named in the suit were the town of West Warwick, the town fire inspector Denis Larocque, the manufacturer of the pyrotechnics and the American Foam Corp., which sold the club the material used for soundproofing, which burned like gasoline.

The first lawsuits allege that the Derderians "failed to properly manage, maintain, control and inspect" the nightclub the night of the fire, and did not make sure soundproofing foam was safe.

The suits also alleges Daniel Biechele, the Great White tour manager, was the person who "set off" the pyrotechnics display unsafely and without a required competency certificate.

Cunha said the first suits were filed on behalf of the families of Tina Ayer, 33, of Warwick; and Donald Rodriques, 46, of Fall River, Mass.

"This is a tragedy that is the result of the combined negligence of a series of different people and different companies, each one of which, had they not been negligent, would have prevented this tragedy," Cunha said.

The West Warwick Town Council met in executive session Tuesday night, and presumably discussed the lawsuits behind closed doors.

Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer referred all questions about the lawsuits to the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust, the town's insurer.

Thomas Dwyer, president and executive director of the Trust, said in Wednesday's Boston Globe, "I think it's quite clear here that you're going to have huge losses and insufficient financial resources to cover those losses."

As of Tuesday night, 46 victims remained hospitalized in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with 25 still in critical condition.

The grand jury probing the fire reconvened Tuesday. Among those seen entering and leaving the National Guard base where the grand jury was meeting behind closed doors were Great White guitarist Mark Kendall and bassist Dave Filice.

Kendall later told WBZ-TV that he was not seeking immunity in exchange for his testimony. He said he answered questions from the panel by "telling the truth." He also said the band had permission from the club to use pyrotechnics.

The Derderians have denied granting such permission.

The brothers are expected at some point to be called before the grand jury.

The state Superior Court, meanwhile, prepared for the numerous lawsuits by appointing Judge Alice B. Gibney to manage and supervise all civil suits resulting from the fire.

Court officials also advised those who were considering filing suits to "use caution" when retaining lawyers. Some relatives have complained to the court that lawyers were being overly aggressive in chasing the cases, the Journal reported.

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