McGeorge alumnus Robert B. Bale, ’98, was honored for his role representing victims of the Ghost Ship fire in litigation; the award was announced at the 25th annual California Lawyer Attorneys of the Year (CLAY) Awards presented by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Bale, a partner at Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora LLP in Sacramento, along with three prominent San Francisco lawyers, comprised an executive committee for a large coalition of attorneys that represented the victims of the deadly December 2016 disaster. The CLAY Awards recognized all four for their outstanding efforts.

The Ghost Ship, an Oakland warehouse operating as an artist collective, contained illegal residential spaces and hosted unlicensed musical events. A late-night fire that broke out during a music-and-art event took the lives of 36 people. The victims, unable to find their way through makeshift hallways littered with furniture, tapestries, wooden pallets, and theatrical sets, died of smoke inhalation.

“It was one of the most heart-wrenching and tragic cases I’ve been involved in,” Bale told the Daily Journal.

Bale and another executive committee member researched California Public Utilities Commission regulations, state fire code, and Oakland’s municipal code to develop their legal strategies for their lawsuit against the city and Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The plaintiff attorneys faced and overcame a barrage of motions asserting broad immunities afforded to public agencies. The final victory came when the California Supreme Court refused to hear the defense’s appeal of a Superior Court judge ruling, affirmed by an intermediate appellate court, that the City of Oakland had a mandatory duty to ensure safety at the warehouse. In July 2020, the plaintiffs reached a $33 million settlement with the City of Oakland.

The following month, PG&E paid an undisclosed amount to 32 victims for negligent oversight of illegal electrical usage that was a contributing factor in the fire’s outbreak. Multiple neighboring businesses had been drawing power through one on-site meter with visible electrical cords.

Bale and another executive committee member had to unravel the business dealings of the building’s owners who turned a blind eye to its activities.

“When owners tell you they had no idea what was going on, you know that isn’t true,” Bale said.

The attorneys uncovered a web of property holdings involving a family trust that was almost as muddled as the inside of the warehouse. Through bankruptcy liquidation and the sale of other properties, they were compelled to come up with more than $10 million for the victims.

In addition to the civil case, the master tenant of the building housing the Ghost Ship pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.