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$2-Billion Claim Filed in Deadly Oakland Fire

November 18, 1991

Oakland and the local utility district have been accused of negligence in class-action claims seeking $2 billion in damages for victims of the devastating Oct. 20 fire.

In the claim against the city, Richard E. Brown, a partner of attorney Melvin Belli, contended that firefighters failed to take necessary precautions to ensure that a smaller grass fire that started the day before was extinguished.

A hot spot in the earlier blaze flared up, resulting in an inferno in which 25 people died and more than 3,000 homes and apartments were destroyed.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District was accused in the second claim of ignoring recommendations from a 1981 blue-ribbon panel, which warned that water pressure could fail in a fire emergency. The panel had called for the creation of a backup power system for water delivery.

Brown, who represents 23 fire victims, said he filed the claims as class-actions because many people harmed by the blaze may be unaware that they have only six months in which to take this first step, which is required before a lawsuit can be brought. The city and utility district have 45 days to respond.

Government entities are generally considered immune from claims involving their normal duties. But Brown said an exception can be made if the agencies failed to perform mandatory duties.

Gayle Montgomery, spokesman for the utility, said a backup system would have made no difference, given the magnitude of the rapidly spreading blaze. "It's just one more case of trying to find someone to blame for what was a natural catastrophe," he said. City representatives could not be reached Sunday.

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