Oakland settles lawsuits over deadly 'Ghost Ship' fire for $32.7 million

The fire at the 2016 warehouse known as the "Ghost Ship" killed 36 people. One person was acquitted, and another faces a retrial.
Image: Ghost Ship warehouse fire
The remains of the fire ravaged "Ghost Ship" warehouse that killed 36 people in Oakland, California on Dec. 5, 2016.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Phil Helsel

The city of Oakland, California, will pay more than $32 million to settle lawsuits brought on behalf of victims of the deadly 2016 "Ghost Ship" fire in which 36 people died, officials announced.

"This was a horrific tragedy that deeply impacted every corner of our community," a statement from the city attorney's office said.

The fire occurred in a warehouse that had been converted without permits into a residence for artists. There were no fire sprinklers or alarms.

When the fire broke out Dec. 2, 2016, there was an electronic music party on the second floor.

Fire officials and former residents have described the first floor of the building as a "labyrinth" and a firetrap, and a survivor testified that people who were unable to escape came up a flight of stairs shaking their heads and saying, "No." The stairs were built out of wooden shipping pallets.

An Oakland police officer guards the area in front of the art collective warehouse known as the Ghost Ship in the aftermath of a fire in Oakland, California on Dec. 9, 2016.Ben Margot / AP file

The settlement announced Friday allocates $23.5 million for the families of those who died, as well as $9.2 for someone who survived, Sam Maxwell, the city statement said.

Maxwell "will live with severe, lifelong injuries and major medical expenses," the statement said. The deal authorized by the city council Thursday settles lawsuits filed on behalf of 32 of the 36 people who died, the city said.

Paul Matiasic, an attorney for five of the families who lost loved ones, told the East Bay Times newspaper that the lawsuit was not about the money, but rather about what he said was the city's inaction when the building had been illegally converted.

"The amount doesn’t come close to approximating the loss of loved ones for my clients; the money is insignificant. There’s no amount of money in the world that can bring their loved ones back,” Matiasic said.

Two people were charged: Derick Almena, the man who rented out the space, and Max Harris, who prosecutors described as a tenant who Almena named "creative director" and who was in charge if issues like rent.

A jury acquitted Harris of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in September. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Almena, and a judge declared a mistrial.

Almena is awaiting a retrial that is scheduled to start in October, the city said.

Prosecutors alleged that Almena, called the master tenant, acted with criminal negligence by failing to install safety measures like smoke alarms or sprinklers, and that Almena resisted requests in order to thwart inspectors.

Almena’s attorneys argued city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards in the warehouse. A city official said in 2016 that no Oakland building code enforcement inspector had looked at the inside of the building in three decades. When inspectors did visit the site in November 2016, they were unable to enter to investigate a report of illegal construction, city officials have said.

Officials have said that the fire that engulfed the warehouse was already raging on the ground floor before victims on the floor above realized anything was wrong, and that smoke poured up the two staircases and trapped partygoers who were overcome.

No official cause of the fire was ever found. Some lawsuits said there were serious electrical problems with the building, The Associated Press reported. The owner of the building was not charged.

The city of Oakland said in a statement that it continues to assert under the deal that it is not liable for what it called the tragic losses from the fire. The city said that it agreed to settle the suits "because of the cost-benefit analysis," and that its insurance coverage is $22 million.

"This was a horrific tragedy that deeply impacted every corner of our community," the city said in a statement. "Mayor Schaaf, the City Council, City Attorney and City Administrator express their deepest sympathies to Mr. Maxwell and the families, whose losses are unimaginable."

The Associated Press contributed.