On the night of May 28, 1977 a deadly fire broke out in the Beverly Hills Supper Club, and disaster ensued resulting in 165 deaths. Great tragedy overtook the extremely popular and glitzy hot spot located in Southgate, Kentucky, five miles from Cincinnati. Its preeminent location at the pinnacle of a hill reflected its position in society. The club was incredibly grand and extravagant; its regal nature played a significant role in its appeal. The Beverly Hills was a place to get excited about. It hosted private celebrations as well as live entertainment events including performances by the most popular musicians of the day such as Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. As Amanda Ripley explained, “[b]y the 1970s, the Beverly Hills had become the Midwest’s Tavern on the Green.” The Beverly Hills was, in fact, an incredibly popular locale. On that fateful night in May 1977 approximately three thousand people occupied the club, of whom 165 died as a result of the fire that broke out in the Zebra Room and the suffocating smoke it produced. Unfortunately there have been numerous tragic fires throughout history. The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire is significant though because of the civil litigation that followed after the disaster. While it was decided that criminal litigation would not be pursued, the civil litigation that ensued has had a lasting impact on American law. The practice of utilizing class action for a mass tort case as well as the doctrine of enterprise liability were birthed within the litigation that followed the fire. The character and personal beliefs of Judge Carl B. Rubin and plaintiff’s attorney Stanley Chesley shaped the highly innovative handling of the litigation, but the times during which the fire occurred also played a contributing role.
The Causes Edit
Violations existed in abundance at the club. The 4-R Corporation had conducted many construction projects and renovations without acquiring the necessary permits and permission. The electrical wiring of the club “was an electrician’s nightmare,” and those installing the electrical system had failed to install mechanisms intended to hinder the spread of fire. At the same time, the decorative materials within the club such as the foam padded furniture, carpeting, and decorative paneling basically functioned as tinder and encouraged the spread of the fire. Plus, roof supports were absent throughout the building except for possibly within the Garden Room. To make matters worse it was determined that merely 16.5 exits existed at the club whereas given the occupancy of the building 27.5 were needed. This matter was exacerbated by the fact that the building was seriously overcrowded. The maximum occupancy of the Cabaret Room was 756 persons, and yet on the night of the fire, approximately 1,360 people were crowded into that room alone. The compilation of these factors lead to mass catastrophe.
The Fire Edit
With a number of events booked, it was expected that that the 28th would be a hectic day at the Beverly Hills, but nobody predicted the true chaos and disaster that actually ensued. The first smoke was detected around 6 p.m. Within the following three hours, a number of drivers in the parking lot noted and reported that they had observed smoke. A number of guests at a wedding reception which occurred in the Zebra Room that evening had noticed that it was warm in the room and asked that the air conditioning be raised. As the night got later the first wedding guests began to depart around 8:30p.m. Then, at approximately 9p.m. a reservation clerk noticed smoke in the Zebra Room and alerted some of her fellow employees at which point the fire department was called. Shortly after all of the combustible materials within the Zebra Room ignited, in effect creating a furnace, and the fire quickly spread down the hallway. Just four minutes after the hour, the first of many rescue workers arrived. Employees of the club had already begun helping patrons evacuate the building. But, not until 9:08 p.m. did busboy Walker Bailey interrupt the performance of comedians Jim Teter and Jim McDonald, who were opening for John Davidson’s show in the Cabaret Room, to alert the audience of the imminent danger and encourage them to seek an exit. But, as survivor Lise Bohannon noted “the club was like a maze.” And, to make matter worse the exits of the club were not wide enough or numerous enough to accommodate the number of people attempting to escape. This caused the entrapment of many within the Cabaret Room. Once firefighters realized what had happened, they turned their attention to saving those who were trapped. But, eventually suffocating smoke enveloped the room, and then finally around midnight the roof collapsed on the Cabaret Room. Although rescue workers realized that those remaining inside were basically doomed, they fervently worked through the night attempting to rescue all whom they could.
Two days after the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire occurred, “159 Beverly Dead Recovered” was published by Jim Greenfield of the Enquirer Reporter. The fire broke out late Saturday night and this article was published early Monday morning, thus it was one of the first articles read about the event. The tone of the initial news released concerning an occurrence strongly influences and directs the public’s perceptions and understanding of the event, thus this article was particularly influential. By use of inflammatory diction and constant allusions to the military, the press immediately framed the event as an enormous disaster, comparable in scale to a major military catastrophe and opened the doors to plaintiffs’ attorneys to seize hold of the event. The article focuses on the loss of life that resulted from the fire in a highly dramatic way. Greenberg repeatedly refers to the search for bodies among the destruction which he refers to as “[t]he grisly hunt.” The matter itself is quite upsetting, but the extent to which he dwells upon it and the provocative terms with which he supplies it only amplify the effect of disturbance. The article obsesses over the stoppage of time created by the fire. The fire so abruptly ended the lives of more than a hundred persons. In one fateful night, the lives of so many were cut down like trees. Greenfield quotes one witness describing a number of bodies “heaped five and six deep near exits ‘like cordwood.’” This is a particularly distressing simile. So many lives were lost that the individual is reduced to merely a piece of timber, a piece of wood that functions to fuel a fire. The comparison is all too realistic for the supper club fire did in fact incinerate these bodies. In effect, this article magnifies the horror and tragedy of the event and thereby feeds the fire of emotional distress and inflames the public. At the same time, however, the article fails to point the finger of blame for the actual fire in any direction. Greenfield, perhaps unknowingly, thereby opens the doors for creative litigation; he leaves all avenues open and allows the attorneys complete discretion in deciding whom to frame as the villain in this disaster.
Judge Carl B. Rubin of the Southern district of Ohio volunteered to take on the cases of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. The cases actually fell under the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Kentucky, but as Rubin recognized the Kentucky court was already overwhelmed, and his current workload was lighter than that of his colleagues. In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon had nominated Rubin to serve on the bench for the Southern District of Ohio. Before his appointment, Rubin had actively engaged in Republican politics. He directed Robert Taft Jr.’s congressional campaigns in 1966 and 1968 and served as field director of Taft’s senatorial race in 1970. After Congress approved of his appointment, on June 25th Rubin assumed his position on the bench which he retained until his death on August 2, 1995. Rubin’s judicial career was highly praised; many considered him to be one of the most intelligent judges in the nation. Believing the position of federal judge to be an unparalleled honor, he dedicated himself to his judicial work. Rubin believed the law to be “the last hope of civilization.”
Rubin tended to have conservative inclinations but his political ideology was certainly complex. Although he was economically conservative, he nonetheless behaved as a liberal when it came to protecting the rights of the individual. As an avid believer in the court as a place of justice he firmly supported the so called “little man.” Also, he was a jurisprudential conservative who cherished the idea of precedent, and yet he conducted his court in innovative ways. Rubin has been titled the “father of courtroom imaging” because in 1991 he pioneered the installation of and utilization of imaging and presentation devices within the courtroom, for he believed that such technology would enhance jurors’ comprehension of evidence. But more important to this account, “[h]e was the first judge in the country to preside over a class action, mass tort case.”
The Litigation Edit
Rubin’s character played a significant role in the conduction of the case. His concern for both the “little guy” and justice were hugely significant. Before Rubin merged the suits into one class action suit, almost ninety civil actions sought damages totaling nearly $ 3,000,000,000, and the primary defendant of these cases was the 4-R Corporation, comprised of Dick Schilling, the owner of the club, and his sons. However, the Schilling’s total assets amounted to a sum that was not even a tenth of the total damages sought. By consolidating the cases Rubin attempted to prevent all of the available money from being awarded to the first cases heard. He took action in an effort to enable a greater number to obtain justice.
The litigation that followed the Hartford circus fire of 1944 provided Rubin with evidence of the benefits of mass litigation. In the introduction to Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg praises the lawyers of the Hartford community. He claims that the disaster was handled remarkably well because of the innovative work of the legal professionals involved and their commitment to what he refers to as “real justice.” According to Trachtenberg, in the litigation that followed the fire, “a handful of strong-minded, highly ethical attorneys proved that a community beset by a disaster that positively invited mass litigation could cooperate with each other” but also with the circus “owners” and the “hundreds of area residents” who were affected by the fire. The resolution reached through very innovative means involving mass litigation and alternative dispute resolution was agreeable for all. The circus was “saved,” “just compensation” was obtained for hundreds who had been affected by the fire, and the reputation of the Hartford legal community was “burnished.” But, Trachtenberg contends that what is so incredibly impressive about the litigation following the fire is that the legal community worked “on behalf of people.” While typically insider deals and arrangements are used in ways that are disadvantageous to the masses, in this instance they were used for the people. The large number of individuals, predominantly from humble backgrounds, involved in this litigation would have likely never been able to obtain such an agreeable resolution for themselves in the standard litigation process.
Thus, mass litigation would have appealed to Rubin as a method of potentially achieving justice for more persons. The Beverley Hills was a hot spot popular among a wide range of the community. Therein lies the problem, especially for Rubin who was so concerned with the “little guy,” with the fact that lawyers predominantly serve the wealthy. Lawyers fail to adequately serve nearly three quarters of the population. As is quoted in Lawyers on Trial, the American Bar Association has admitted that “the middle seventy percent of the population” does not receive sufficient legal counsel. The wealthy essentially monopolize the use of legal services in large part because of the significant price of legal counsel. But, class action suits are able to alleviate the plight of the financially lacking middle seventy percent. Not only do class action suits help prevent the justice system from being overwhelmed, which was clearly a relevant issue given that Rubin volunteered to take on this case because the Kentucky court system was overwhelmed, but they can also provide relief for plaintiffs whose individual claims are too small to economically justify individual litigation. As a judge, an arbitrary figure, Rubin’s interest lay in seeking a just resolution. The litigation following the Hartford circus fire provided proof positive that mass litigation as well as creativity yielded good resolutions, resolutions that affected a greater number of people and that were agreeable to all parties involved.
In effect, Rubin’s merging of the cases placed plaintiff’s attorney Stanley Chesley in charge of the suit. Although many other attorneys, concerned that there was not enough money involved in the case to make it worthwhile, had distanced themselves from the case, Chesley did not shy away. Instead, he devised a creative tactic: enterprise liability.
Chesley’s character played a significant role in bringing about his invention of and decision to utilize the tactic of enterprise liability. Chesley grew up as the child of immigrants, as the son of a typewriter repair shop owner. While in high school, Chesley was informed that he was not college material, but he did not allow this disparaging remark to affect his future. Not only did Chesley attended the University of Cincinnati, but he even financed his own education with a job as a salesclerk at what was Shilito’s department store. Chesley’s behavior as a young adult evidenced that he was determined but also creative. While working at the store he suggested that the name of his department be changed. He found it offensive to describe the shoes he sold as “budget”; he preferred to refer to them as “fashion shoes.” For his suggestion Chesley was rewarded a $25 bonus. Clearly Chesley was innovative and willing to stand behind his ideas.
Chesley’s innovative and determined nature was critical in spurring him to conjure the novel concept of enterprise liability and then to pursue it. “Enterprise liability is a legal doctrine under which individual enterprises can be held jointly liable for some action on the basis of being part of a shared enterprise. It is a form of secondary liability.” Instead of getting discouraged like other lawyers, Chesley thought beyond the obvious defendants. He sought out additional culprits to be considered as defendants for the suit in an effort to enhance the monetary awards potentially available.
To the list of defendants Chesley added the Union Light, Heat, and Power Company (ULHPC) which supplied electrical energy to the club. Chesley argued that the company had failed to inspect the club’s electrical system after multiple renovations and had thereby violated the law. Providing energy to an uninspected facility violated the National Electrical Code. Similarly Chesley involved the Iso-Fair, an association of nearly a thousand insurance firms, in the suit arguing that without inspecting the facility the Iso-Fair had issued policies and collected premiums from the 4-R Corporation. Chesley also implicated the aluminum wiring industry. He found fault with the aluminum electrical wiring manufactured within the industry and contended that its tendency to overheat contributed to the fire. In addition, Chesley added manufactures of products containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to the pool of defendants, for as he argued, PVC produces poisonous fumes upon burning.
The times in which the Beverly Hills Super Club Fire occurred also certainly had an important effect on the handling of the case. Chesley’s unprecedented use of enterprise liability as well as Rubin’s decision to handle the case in a drastically new way were in congruence with the rebellious nature of the decade during which the disaster occurred. The 1970s were conducive to radical behavior. In The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, Bruce Schulman notes that “[t]he decade’s most potent and memorable cultural products raised an upturned middle finger at conventional sources of authority…” At the time Rubin’s use of class action was abnormal, even discouraged. Congress suggested against using class action suits for mass tort cases, but nonetheless, Rubin elected to merge the numerous claims into a single class action. Kenneth Abraham, professor of law at the University of Virginia, claims that this was one of the first, if not the first major disaster case in which this was done. The “rebellious streak” of the seventies ran deep. While Rubin and Chesley’s handlings of the suit was unusual, their behaviors which deviated from the norm and even defied authority were not.
The time period during which the disaster occurred certainly played a significant role in the disaster. Shulman proclaims that the image of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever epitomizes the “polyester fakery,” “senseless hedonism,” and “supposed cultural bankruptcy” of the seventies. Images of the Beverly Hills Supper Club do the same. The club’s regal nature contributed significantly to it appeal. Figure I captivates the very essence of the club and its falsified sense of luxury. At first glance the viewer’s attention is captivated by what appears to be spectacular grandeur. A crystal chandelier glimmering in the light dangles from the ceiling and the rear wall of the room is adorned with an impressive scene. Chairs upholstered with silky fabric and dishware precisely arranged mark each place setting. Their seemingly infinite repetition throughout the room gives the impression that an infinite amount of money has been poured into the room. But upon closer examination the mirage crumbles. The chairs are not the impressive pieces of furniture which they initially appear to be. They lack stately wooden legs or clawed feet. They are nothing but the metal legged chairs which have a superficial glimmer of luxury and yet lack the valuable structure and substance of the real thing. And the tableware is not fine china but rather merely dishes designed with a thin veil of luxury. Certainly a significant amount of effort and a reasonable amount of money was invested to create an air of glamour, but it certainly was no more than an air. Little substance existed beyond the façade of luxury that represented the club. So much concern was focused on the appearance of the club while important matters such as safety were largely neglected. This behavior correlates with Norman Mailer’s critique of the seventies as a “decade in which people put emphasis on the skin, on the surface, rather than on the root of things” as quoted by Shulman. The contrast between Figure I and Figure II is salient.
Traces of the grandeur which monopolized Figure 1 are still evident. The remains of a somewhat pompous table, an ornate mirror, and grandiose wall paper are visible, but tremendous destruction is also clearly evident. The table is now ornamented with soot and fallen debris. The broken mirror reflects images of the damage which has overtaken the room. The charred wallpaper is peeling from the wall. This image is particularly poignant because, especially in comparison to the first, it portrays how incredibly detrimental and disastrous such a shallow obsession with appearance, with “the surface” can be. These images and their striking contrast provoked a reform of the mindset which dominated the seventies, a reform of the fascination with appearance. It caused the viewers of the disaster to redirect their gaze from the mere appearance of the club to the substance beneath that façade, to the matter that caused the fire. It caused Chesley to peer behind the mask of the club; he unveiled what he believed to be the fraudulence of the 4-R Corporation as well as the failure of multiple industries to conduct business in a safe and responsible manner.
Chesley’s argument concerning who was to blame proved to be very convincing, and ultimately, his tactic of enterprise liability proved to be very effective. Before going to trial both the 4-R Corporation and the ULHPC settled for approximately $3,000,000 and $5,700,000 respectively. The case involving the aluminum wiring industry went to trial but before a verdict was reached a number of the companies involved settled for a sum of approximately $4,500,000. However, the jury of the trial ultimately decided in favor of the defendants. Iso-fair also went to court, and it was decided that a sum of $3,000,000 would be awarded to the defendants.
Memory and Legacy Edit
A Personal Fictional Account Edit
All I remember is chaos. That day was complete chaos. The club had been mad busy all day. Everyone was excited because it was Memorial Day weekend, but everyone was especially excited to see John Davidson performing. I was working with my friend Lise Bohannon in the Cabaret Room that night. My mind was cluttered with drink orders as I hustled back and forth to the bar all evening, I guess in that respect that night wasn’t any different than any other. I was so frantically busy that I didn’t even realize that Lise had slipped out until her tables began trying to flag me to bring them drinks. I finally asked the bar tender where on earth she was, and he mentioned that he thought he saw her heading towards the door. Confused and worried I left in search of her. Thank god. As soon as I got to the stairs I realized there was a mass exodus in progress. While everyone in the Cabaret room sat preoccupied by the show, as the smoke spread, people from other parts of the building had begun to flee. I managed to escape just before the real frenzy. Trying to see to get safely down the stairs was extremely difficult, with my eyes watering profusely and the smoke which had already begun to engulf the building burning in my throat. The suffocating smoke stole away the oxygen and clouded the air. Shortly after, the flames erupted and panic ensued. As the raging fire conquered the building, people desperately attempted to flee. But that building was mazelike, and the smoke filled the air. The images of all those bodies, so many bodies lying in the cool summer grass on the hills outside the club will haunt my memory forever.
Memories of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire continue to haunt those who were involved and affected. Cathy LaCour quoted in the article “Memories Haunt Despite Decades” and a member of the Cincinnati community, explains that the fire was a “defining event” for the people in and around the Cincinnati area. In a striking comparison she relates the significance of the event and its defining nature to the assignation of President John F. Kennedy. This bold comparison, which may seem entirely ridiculous to the average American, completely ignorant of the fire, indicates how incredibly important this disaster has been in the lives of those people in and around the Cincinnati community. But, the effect of the disaster has extended far beyond a single geographic local. The litigation that followed the fire has had a significant impact on American legal practices. Federal judge William O. Bertelsman explains that while at the time Stanley’s handling of the suit was “’novel,’” it is now standard practice to handle fires in such a way, pursuing similar defendants. Although the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire is lacking in notoriety, it is certainly not lacking in significance and impact.
See Also Edit
-night club fires: Station nightclub fire, Cocoanut Grove Fire
-creative disaster settlement: Hartford circus fire
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