Centennial Series: Long Beach & The Law
In honor of the Long Beach Bar Association’s Centennial, this is a series of historical notes on cases and courts in Long Beach through the decades.
January -A Look at the Teens
The Bar Association began in 1917, but the first instance of mass tort litigation arising from a single event was a few years earlier in 1913. It was known as the “Empire Day Tragedy.”
Long Beach’s love affair with America’s former colonial masters long predates the arrival of the Queen Mary. Each year after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, her birthday of May 24 was “Empire Day” commemorating the glory of the British Empire under her reign. It may seem an odd thing to celebrate in these United States, but the event was not an official municipal occasion. It was organized by Long Beach Citizens of “Imperial” background - i.e. English or Canadian descent. On May 24, 1913, thousands gathered for a parade, athletic events, games, music and speeches at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. The Pine Avenue Pier was still in existence and offered an approach to the main entrance of the auditorium. A large crowd had gathered, waiting for the main doors to open. As they waited, a parade which had marched through the streets approached, led by a brass band. The crowd began to clap and stamp their feet in time to the music.
Suddenly, a 40 square foot section of the upper pier
collapsed. 350 men, women, and children fell to the lower
deck of the pier which also collapsed, causing even more
people to fall to the sand 30 feet below the lower deck.
36 people died, some from the impact of the fall, some from
suffocation under the mass of fallen people. There were 175
serious injuries. The emergency resources of Long Beach
were stretched beyond their limits. Physicians, nurses, and
all available ambulances rushed to assist. Private homes
near the scene were opened for treatment of the injured.
The very next day a citizen’s relief committee was
organized. On June 18 citizens voted for a 20 cent “special
relief tax” was passed to establish a relief fund of $60,000
(when adjusted for inflation, $1,462,745.)
The total amount of claims filed in the ensuing litigation of 175 separate cases against the City (whose pier supports were found to be seriously and obviously decayed) totaled $3.5 million ($85,326,000 in present day dollars.)
One enterprising attorney retained by 30 different plaintiffs decided to try a “test” case to facilitate settlement of other claims. The plaintiffs were the widower and son of Mrs. Chafor and they prayed for $15,000 ($365,000 present day value) in damages for wrongful death. The trial before the Honorable Paul K. McCormick lasted 17 days (there was no Superior Court in Long Beach in 1913. The case was tried in the grandiose “Red Sandstone Courthouse” at Spring St. and Temple Ave. in Los Angeles. The deliberations lasted “several hours” and resulted in a judgment of $7,500 (approximately
$182,000 today) which was appealed all the way to the
California Supreme Court and affirmed.
Ultimately, those other cases actually tried resulted in
verdicts totaling $25,750 ($620,000) and settlements totaled
$346,000 ($8,435,000). This still seems pretty modest by today’s
standards of recovery. Would a contemporary attorney estimate
the value of 175 cases, including dozens of those for wrongful
death, at $10 million or less?
In 1919 Long Beach citizens approved a $350,000 bond
measure for purposes of paying the settlements.
The auditorium was repaired and not reopened until 1915.
A new auditorium at a different location was completed in 1932,
just in time for the next disaster, the 1933 quake. The new
auditorium did not fall. Ironically, the Red Sandstone Courthouse
was destroyed by the ‘33 earthquake.
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The LBBA would like to extend a special thank you to Ken Freedman for his work in preparing this series.