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In shadow of deadly nightclub fire, R.I. seeks change in injury laws

By Associated Press
Published December 14, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Walter Castle Jr. was so outraged that he broke down when he learned Rhode Island law doesn't 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 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 roared through The Station nightclub as sparks from a band's pyrotechnic display set fire to foam used as soundproofing on the walls. It killed 100 people and injured Castle and about 200 others.

Involuntary manslaughter charges were filed Tuesday against club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Dan Biechele, tour manager for the band Great White.

State 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.

Lynch said he plans to propose 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," Lynch said.

David White-Lief, 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," White-Lief 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."

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.

For the survivors of the fire, though, the damage is already done and the current law only adds insult to injury.

"I can't do anything strenuous," said Castle, 30, from North Kingstown, R.I. "I used to work in factories and stuff. I can't do that anymore because I get out of breath too quick."

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

"I am upset that they're not indicting them (for) the rest of us who were hurt," she said.

Attorney Mark Mandell, part of a group of lawyers representing about 200 people affected by the fire, said most of the survivors he represents understand they can still pursue civil claims. At least six civil suits are pending in federal court. Mandell's group hasn't yet filed its lawsuits.

"I think the general reaction was that they were upset that they couldn't be included, but not upset at the attorney general," he said. "They understood that he could only deal with the law that they had."

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