John Barylick on Criminal and Civil Justice in Rhode Island

John Barylick is a trial lawyer in Rhode Island.

His practice had been primarily medical malpractice.

But then on February 20, 2003, the deadliest rock concert in U.S. history took place at a roadhouse called The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

The blaze was ignited when pyrotechnics set off by Great White, a 1980s heavy-metal band, lit flammable polyurethane egg crate foam sound insulation on the club’s walls.

In less than ten minutes, 96 people were dead and 200 more were injured, many catastrophically.

The final death toll topped out, three months later, at 100.

Immediately after the fire, the phone at John Barylick’s law firm – Wistow & Barylick – started ringing.

Barylick ended up one of the lead trial lawyers in the case.

And now, almost ten years after the fire, and after seven years of litigation, Barylick has written a book about the tragedy – Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert (University Press of New England, 2012).

“On February 20, 2003, Great White appeared at The Station and set off fireworks indoors,” Barylick told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.

“Those fireworks ignited packaging foam that had been applied to the walls of the club by its owners as a form of primitive sound dampening. The foam immediately caught fire. And the fire raced through the overcrowded club with such intensity that if escape were not effected within about 90 seconds, most people did not stand a chance of escape.”

“The final death toll was 100 with hundreds more injured.”

“The most reliable estimate is that 462 people were at the club at the time of the fire. They consisted mostly of people between the age of 30 and 45. It was a 1980s heavy metal band, so it was more of a blue collar biker bar crowd.”

Barylick says that the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association realized early on that “in order to properly litigate civil claims for this tragedy that no single firm or attorney could marshal the assets to do so.”

“So, they formed a plaintiffs’ steering committee, which was appointed and approved by the Superior Court for the State of Rhode Island. That steering committee – consisting of eight plaintiff firms – did the work for all of the litigation for the next seven years.”

The defendants ranged “from the very obviously culpable – the band and the club owners – to the more peripheral and deeper pocketed defendants such as product manufacturers for products involved in the blaze,” Barylick said. “There were some 70 defendants or defendant groups eventually in the final amended complaint.”

“The plaintiffs were the wrongful death claimants on behalf of 97 of the 100 people who were killed in the fire, as well as hundreds of people who suffered injuries,” he said

The total settlement was $176 million – with the average wrongful death claim coming in at a little less than $1 million.

On the criminal side, evidence was presented to a statewide grand jury over a number of months, Barylick said.

“Three indictments were issued,” Barylick said. “One was against the manager of the band, Daniel Biechele, who personally, physically set off the pyrotechnics. And the others were against the co-owners of the club – Jeffrey and Michael Derderian.”

“Those criminal actions were eventually resolved some years later. The band manager pled guilty to 100 counts of manslaughter and eventually served 16 months prison time.”

“Michael and Jeffrey Derderian both pleaded nolo contendre to 100 counts of manslaughter. Michael Derderian served 27 months. But Jeffrey Derderian struck a plea agreement that resulted in his entire jail time being suspended. He served no time in jail.”

In his book, Barylick lists what he calls “causative blunders”– the absence of any one of which would have avoided the tragedy.

One of these was – “improper use of foam plastic insulation as sound insulation on interior walls.”

“The walls were covered on the west end of the club in egg crate polyurethane foam, which is a low density flexible packing foam we are all familiar with,” Barylick explains

“In one particular area of the west end – the drummer’s alcove, there had earlier been installed a different kind of foam under that – a more dense foam – polyethylene – similar to the foam you would see in a swimming pool kick board.”

“The polyurethane foam ignites very easily, but releases its energy rather quickly. So, it was the perfect substance to catch the sparks from the bands pyrotechnics and catch fire.”

“We learned that in the drummer’s alcove, the polyurethane foam set fire to the polyethylene foam underneath it – which had perhaps at least a five fold energy release rate compared to the polyurethane.”

“Once that polyethylene foam caught fire, the intensity of the speed of the fire was such that escape was nearly impossible.”

“One irony we learned was that if the polyethylene foam had been showered by sparks from the fireworks, it would have never caught fire. But if you glue polyurethane foam on top of that, it is perfect kindling for polyethylene.”

“Pyrotechnics have been used for a long time successfully and safely at rock concerts at large, open venues – particularly when local fire regulations are adhered to,” Barylick said.

“These require a site plan, a run through with local fire authorities – and, critically, people on hand with fire extinguishers at the ready should any problem arise.”

“The problem here is that pyrotechnics were ignited in a run down road house with low ceilings and what came to be referred to as solid gasoline on the walls.”

“That phrase came about because one of the club owners was also a television reporter. In a prior news segment, he had done a piece on the fire hazards of foam mattresses.”

“During that television piece, he referred to the polyurethane foam within the mattresses as solid gasoline. Amazingly, less than a year after he did that spot, the brothers put the foam on the walls of their club, apparently failing to connect the dots.”

[For the complete transcript of the Interview with John Barylick, see 26 Corporate Crime Reporter 36(12), September 17, 2012, print edition only.]

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