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Preliminary investigation into the “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in Oakland suggest that the building’s owner, as well as the City of Oakland, may be liable for the consequences of the deadly fire that killed at least 30 people late Friday night.
According to survivors, the “abandoned” warehouse known as the “Ghost Ship,” was a “maze” of improvised living spaces and art studios that was a “death trap” with few exits, an improvised stairway, and exposed electrical cords.
According to former residents of the warehouse, a couple identified as Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison charged tenants “rent” for space on the first floor of the warehouse and used the second floor to host concerts and parties. Some residents and visitors reported that there were five recreational vehicles on ground floor that were being used as living spaces interspaced with improvised spaces being used as art studios.
It is unclear of the couple were acting as the owner’s agents or were acting on their own without the owner’s knowledge. The owner of the building, identified on tax records as Nar Siu Chor, had not been located by Oakland Authorities.
One woman, a former resident at the Ghost Ship, stated that she did not learn that the warehouse was being occupied illegally until after she moved in and was instructed to tell visitors that the building was an art studio. The woman also described the warehouse as a “horror house” without heat, running water, or electricity. She further stated that whenever a visitor appeared who was unknown to the residents it would send the residents on a mad rush to hide bedding and other signs that the building was occupied.
With the death count currently at 30 and rising on an almost hourly basis, attention has turned to the question of the legal status of the building’s “tenants.”
Did Oakland Building Inspectors Know About the Ghost Ship?
Published reports quote Darin Ranelletti, of the Oakland Planning Department, as saying that the city had opened an investigation of the warehouse on November 13 after neighbors complained about trash piling up outside and people illegally living in the building but the city could not confirm that people were indeed living inside at that time.
If the City of Oakland had reasonable grounds to believe that the building was illegally occupied, as reports from neighbors and piles of trash lying outside would seem to confirm, then the city should have “red tagged” the building and informed the owner of the illegal activity. In not doing so, it breached its duty and was therefore negligent.
Squatters or Tenants?
Under California law, a squatter gains some rights the moment they move into an abandoned structure. This is known as “adverse possession.” If the structure’s owner is aware of the squatter’s presence and takes no action to have the squatter removed from the property, the squatter can raise the issue of an implied contract where the squatter is paying “rent” by making property improvements, repairs, or even by providing “security.” Furthermore, if the squatter makes property tax payments for 5 consecutive years, the squatter may then go to court in order to gain title to the building.
Premises Liability and the Rights of Visitors
Premises liability holds that the person who is in possession of a premises is liable for injuries suffered by those present on that premises. This liability is based on the following:
- The potential defendant (owner) owns the premises in question
- The potential defendant (the injured party) must be an invitee onto the premises
- The owner has a duty to maintain a safe premises
- The owner of the premises breached that duty, resulting in injury to the invitee
From the sketchy available information regarding ownership of the warehouse and the practices of the couple who charged rent, it appears that the owner either knew, or should have known, that the warehouse was being used for purposes that were prohibited by its zoning code.
In the past there had been parties or other such social events in the Ghost Ship, and some of these had even involved advertisements on various social media. Whether or not an admission fee was charged is irrelevant because the visitors were “invitees” and had the right to expect that the venue was safe and that no foreseeable hazards to safety were known to the residents or owners of the building. In failing to maintain a safe premises, the owner is liable for damages.
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