Families unable to sue but Stardust owners took £3m claim

Finding of probable arson stopped relatives suing club owners and operators for alleged negligence

Antoinette Keegan survived the Stardust nightclub fire in February 1981 but lost her sisters Mary and Martina to the blaze in which 48 people died and 214 were injured. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

The Stardust was a nightclub in Artane, north Dublin. In the early hours of Saturday, February 14th, 1981 – St Valentine’s Day – a fire broke out inside the club leading to the deaths of 48 people and injuries to 214 others, most of them from the Artane, Kilmore and Coolock areas. Some 841 people attended the disco on the night of the fire.

The fire happened shortly after 1.30am, apparently in a first-floor store room containing drums of cooking oil, sodium-chlorate toilet cleaner, reams of paper napkins and plastic cutlery.

Dublin Fire Brigade and gardaí were alerted, but within minutes of the fire starting, and the temperature in the club rising rapidly, PVC-coated fabric on seating, together with carpet tiles on walls and inflammable ceiling material, ignited.

A so-called flash-over fire (a sudden, explosive-like ignition of flame) swept through the club, spewing smoke and molten debris down on those inside. Some patrons panicked as they attempted to flee from the building, and many were unable to do so.

Fianna Fáil had been due to hold its ardfheis the following morning at the RDS in Dublin. The Stardust was in the then taoiseach Charles Haughey’s constituency and the annual event was cancelled.

A subsequent tribunal of inquiry under Mr Justice Ronan Keane heard evidence that it was the practice at the club to keep some emergency exit doors padlocked and chained shut at least until midnight.

Criticised

In November 1981, the inquiry found the fire was probably started deliberately – a conclusion hotly disputed by families of the dead but which allowed the owners, the Butterly family, to sue Dublin Corporation for compensation despite they and the club’s managers being criticised strongly for “recklessly dangerous practices”, including chaining doors shut.

Because of the finding of probable arson, relatives of the dead and injured were unable to sue the club owners and operators for alleged negligence. However, such legal obstacles did not apply to the Butterlys.

In June 1983, two Butterly companies brought a claim seeking £3 million from Dublin Corporation. The Circuit Court judge dealing with the claim found in their favour and, eschewing any probability as to the cause of the blaze, declared he was satisfied the fire was indeed malicious.

The companies were awarded damages of £581,000 (more than €730,000). Today the site of the nightclub is the Butterly Business Park.

Eamon Butterly was leaseholder and manager on the night of the blaze. Neither he nor the family have ever accepted any responsibility for what happened, nor apologised to the families of the dead. During the course of the tribunal they asked the government to pay their legal fees, a request that was turned down by the then attorney general.

Despite findings of safety breaches, there were no prosecutions over the incident.

Compensation scheme

A compensation scheme for the families of the dead and injured was set up in 1985, and eventually awarded a total of £10.4 million (€13.2m). The largest awards were between £100,000 (€126,000) and £200,000 (€253,000). Most were under £20,000 (€25,300).

Christine Keegan, who lost two daughters in the fire, Mary and Martina, received £7,500 for each of them.

In 2009, the then government asked barrister Paul Coffey to examine a request by relatives to reopen the inquiry into the tragedy. He concluded that, due to the passage of time and lack of physical evidence as to what had happened, it would not be in the public interest to do so.

However, he suggested that the tribunal finding record be altered to state: “The cause of fire is not known and may never be known. There is no evidence of an accidental origin: and equally no evidence that the fire was started deliberately” – the finding that facilitated the Butterly compensation claim.

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