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Federal judge considers jurisdiction in nightclub fire lawsuits
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- When a ValuJet airplane crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1996 and killed 110 people, lawsuits seeking damages were filed in Florida and Georgia state courts, as well as in federal courts.

Executives from the airline, a jet maintenance company and third-party witnesses were questioned multiple times; lawyers sought thousands of pages of the same documents. Had the cases been consolidated, some lawyers say, money and time would�ve been saved.

A similar argument will be presented Wednesday as U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux weighs where lawsuits stemming from the West Warwick nightclub fire should be heard. Seven lawsuits on behalf of survivors and families of victims have already been filed in courts in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. More are expected.

Lawyers wanting the cases heard in federal court say The Station fire is similar to a plane crash, with parties coming from several states. But others argue the fire is essentially a local disaster and lawsuits should be handled in state court, where many pretrial activities were started.

At issue is a new law that gives federal district courts jurisdiction over certain civil cases resulting from an accident in which at least 75 people died and a defendant resides in a different state than where the accident occurred.

The Feb. 20 fire at The Station killed 100 people and injured nearly 200 others.

Lagueux has asked judges in Connecticut and Massachusetts to stop proceedings until he decides where the cases will be tried. In Rhode Island, pretrial activities, such as gathering evidence, interviewing survivors and testing materials found in the club�s ruins, also have been halted.

Lagueux has indicated he probably will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals to review whatever decision he makes. It�s not clear whether he�ll issue a ruling Wednesday.

There are as many arguments in favor of federal court as there are in favor of state court.

Federal court has a reputation of having better resources, including a bigger court staff and better equipment, said David Yas, an attorney and editor of Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly. The jury is drawn from a larger pool and some would argue the rules in federal court are clearer, he added.

But, Yas said, some lawyers believe it�s harder to win big damages in federal court.

The Multiparty, Multiforum Trial Jurisdiction Act of 2002 went into effect just weeks before the Feb. 20 fire, and was designed specifically for disasters such as hotel fires and plane and train crashes, where plaintiffs and defendants come from different states.

�It should make things run more efficiently,� said Thomas McLaughlin, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in litigation arising from plane crashes.

But the nightclub fire will be the first test of the new law, and it�s not clear whether that disaster applies.

The law includes several exceptions that would keep a case out of federal court. Among them, McLaughlin said, it does not give federal courts jurisdiction if the majority of the plaintiffs are from the same state as the primary defendants.

However, he said, the law doesn�t spell out who the primary defendants are in such a case.

The majority of the 100 people killed in the fire were from Rhode Island, though there were also victims from Massachusetts, Connecticut, California and Florida.

Defendants include the club�s owners, who are from Rhode Island; the 1980s band Great White, from California; the town of West Warwick; and companies based in Missouri, Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania.

�If you take it out of federal court, and shove it in all these different courts, what a mess this would be,� said lawyer Ronald Resmini, who has filed a lawsuit in federal court.

Investigators believe Great White�s pyrotechnics set fire to highly flammable foam used as soundproofing in the club. Members of the band say they received permission for the fireworks from the club owners�who insist they were never told the band intended to use pyrotechnics.

A grand jury has been investigating to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. No charges have been filed.


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