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.

 

 

Click below to jump to a different point in the series:

 

January - A Look at the Teens

 

February - The Roaring Twenties

 

March - Shaking the Thirties

 

April - The War Years

 

May - The Booming Fifities

 

June - Those Swinging Sixties

 

July - Silly Styles and the Seventies

 

August - The New Wave of the Eighties

 

September - The Nineties, Fin de Siecle

 

October - Into the 21st Century

                                                         

The LBBA would like to extend a special thank you to Ken Freedman for his work in preparing this series.