published Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Sprinkler rule may spark lawsuit


by Cliff Hightower

A lawyer representing several nightclubs affected by a Chattanooga ordinance that will make them install sprinklers said they could decide whether to file a lawsuit within a week to 10 days.

“I do have strong indications from several of my clients that is the route they want to take, especially those who own their own building,” attorney Jerry Tidwell said.

The City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday night to give city nightclubs until the end of 2013 to install sprinkler systems, which were required under a 2009 ordinance. Councilmen Jack Benson, Russell Gilbert, Peter Murphy and Manny Rico voted against the ordinance.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said Wednesday he thinks the city would win a lawsuit. Earlier, McMahan said the city could have opened itself up to legal action should a fire occur before the installation deadline.

“If [Fire Marshal James Whitmire] were to know that a building was unsafe and failed to take action, the city could be sued on that,” McMahan said.

The city adopted a sprinkler ordinance in 2009, but the controversy started early this year when Whitmire began working to enforce the rule.

Nightclub owners protested that the cost could put some of them out of business. Club owners have said the cost could be $50,000 to $75,000.

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said Wednesday the threat of a lawsuit would not deter the council. She said the city also had to consider the safety of firefighters who might have to battle a nightclub blaze.

“I think it’s very defendable,” she said. “I think it’s a sound business decision.”

Ladd, who voted for the ordinance, said she does not think the costs for the sprinklers were “too far out of line.”

Councilman Jack Benson adamantly opposed the ordinance, fearing it would put some clubs out of business.

He said the fire marshal has professional experience and should check each club for safety.

Ricky Gray, owner of The Palms at Hamilton, said he doesn’t think the ordinance will force him to shut his doors, but he said it will cause a burden.

Gray said rents the space for his club and will have to pay for the sprinklers from his own pocket.

He said he would like to know what makes his establishment any less safe than other facilities in town that do not have sprinklers, such as Finley Stadium, restaurants and the City Council building.

“They use the word ‘safety’ like politicians use the word ‘school’ to raise taxes,” he said.

He doesn’t think the blanket requirement is fair.

“Someone show me,” he said. “Don’t put it on me because the guy down the road has a teepee that’s about to go up in flames.”

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