Lawyers for Sofa Super Store want a judge to penalize the city of Charleston for failing to turn over thousands of documents from an expert panel that investigated the deadly 2007 blaze at its West Ashley showroom.
At issue are some 47,000 pages of material produced by a six-member team of fire experts hired by the city to probe the June 18, 2007, blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters. The documents could play a key role in civil lawsuits filed against the store and its owners by the fallen firefighters' families.
The store's attorneys allege that the city ignored a court-ordered July 15 deadline for handing over the documents, culled from a computer hard drive. They have asked Circuit Judge Markley Dennis to compel the city to produce the paperwork and impose sanctions on the city for the delay.
Sandy Senn, an attorney for the city, said the city has made a good faith effort to get the review team's paperwork and other documents to the store's attorneys as quickly as possible. Senn said she is tasked with reviewing all 47,000 pages to ensure no confidential information is released, and that process has proved very time-consuming.
"We have been doing our level best to complete the review and we have thus far withheld nothing," she said. "But, it has been a mammoth task with diminishing returns since most of the items we have seen thus far are not new or noteworthy."
In addition to photos and audio transmissions already provided to the store's legal team, 7,067 pages of documents have been cleared for release, Senn said. To date, the city also has provided nearly 53,000 other documents to the legal team from separate requests and subpoenas, a costly undertaking for both sides, she said.
Richard Rosen, an attorney for Sofa Super Store, said Senn can make excuses, but the city consented to the deadline it missed two months ago and is now in violation of the court order.
"With the resources available to the city of Charleston, if they wanted to get this done, they could get this done," he said. "Obviously, this is not a priority for the city."
The store's legal team is trying to defend the business and its principal owner, Herb Goldstein, against civil lawsuits that allege negligence and reckless conduct. Among other things, the lawsuits allege that illegal additions to the store violated building codes and allowed the fire to spread rapidly through a building with highly flammable furniture and no sprinklers.
The store's lawyers counter that "negligence and incompetence" on the part of the city and its fire commanders contributed to the deaths. They are pushing to add the city as a defendant in the lawsuits, which could potentially reduce any award the store and Goldstein might have to pay. Dennis barred the city from being added to the case last year, but that decision is under appeal.
Motley Rice attorney Kevin Dean, who represents some of the families who sued, said Rosen and his team are on a "witch hunt" with the sole goal of deflecting attention and culpability from their client. The attempt to suck the city into the lawsuits has stalled the case for months and delayed justice for the families, he said.
"The plaintiffs can't even get their day to depose Herb Goldstein to have him answer for what he did and failed to do, yet his lawyers have all this time to run up large defense costs to produce a mound of city paper that is useless to this investigation," he said.
Rosen said Dean is off base. The city's potential culpability in the deaths and its handling of the fire investigation are central issues in the case and of primary concern to firefighters, he said. He pointed to hundreds of recently released e-mails from the fire team that reveal their deep concerns about the training, tactics and leadership of the Fire Department.
"This is extremely relevant," he said. "The suggestion that this is somehow holding up the litigation is nonsense."