The Sub owners say SLO firefighters burned down store. Now they’re suing for $5 million

The owners of The Sub and and an adjoining business, which were destroyed in a 2015 fire, are suing the city of San Luis Obispo for more than $5 million, claiming that firefighters’ methods used to combat the blaze were “tantamount to arson.”

The lawsuit, filed Monday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, alleges the Fire Department purposefully burned down the structure rather than put firefighters in harm’s way, and that city administration turns a blind eye to the department’s alleged “unwritten policies” of letting buildings burn.

“Criminals kill witnesses to eliminate evidence; our Fire Department expedites the burn-down of buildings and impedes investigations of the cause of the fire and Fire Department conduct in order to conceal flawed policies,” the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for lost merchandise and property.

Lawsuits only represent one side of the story, and city officials have yet to be served with the complaint or file a response in court.

Assistant City Attorney Jon Ansolabehere said via email Wednesday that the city maintains its firefighters acted professionally in responding to The Sub fire, “which was one of the largest and most aggressive fires the city has ever dealt with.”

“The suggestion that the city’s Fire Department has any sort of unwritten ‘burn-down’ policy is patently absurd and without any basis in actual fact,” Ansolabehere wrote. “The city will of course diligently defend itself from these sort of meritless claims.”

Contacted by phone Thursday, David Hubbard, a Riverside-based attorney representing the owners of The Sub and Square Deal Recordings & Supplies Inc., declined to comment on the case.

The fire broke out the morning of Dec. 26, 2015, in a front display window area in the front of The Sub at 295 Higuera St.

The city says the fire spread quickly through the building thanks in large part to the amount of combustible merchandise and materials inside.

The fire took 15 engines and more than 11 hours to extinguish.

Fire Chief Garret Olson told The Tribune following the fire that the business owners requested that the city “preserve the integrity of the scene for the building owners’ insurance investigators,” adding that the building was too unstable immediately following the fire for investigators to enter safely.

Since there was no credible indication that the property was a crime scene and there were no injuries, the city honored that request, though city officials examined the exterior and interviewed witnesses, Olson said. As a result, fire officials never completed a full investigation, and the official cause of the fire is listed as “undetermined.”

The Sub owners Richard Ferris and Raymond Hanson have denied they asked the city to cease its investigation and have since been vocal in their criticism of the city’s handling of the entire incident. Last year, they alleged that a customer in the store the morning of the fire — who they say claimed to be an “off-duty fireman” — likely started it, and have offered up to $1,000 in cash for photos of the city’s response to the fire or the alleged suspect.

Square Deal Recordings, which occupied the 10,000-square-foot warehouse building in the adjoining lot with The Sub, remains in business at another location, selling music-industry related packaging and related supplies as well as music and pop culture accessories on websites such as Amazon.

Ferris and Hanson had previously filed administrative claims against the city, which the city denied in 2016.

Sub Fire118
The Sub novelty store on South Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo was destroyed by a December 2015 fire. Here, firefighters battle the stubborn blaze as smoke pours from the roof. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

‘The charade must end’

In the complaint filed Monday, the owners of the business claim that more than 300,000 comic books, roughly a million cassette tapes, and countless rare posters and graphics were lost in the fire, which they claim never should have been allowed to spread from The Sub building.

“The art was old and not subject to copyright, and the rock graphics were promos and limited editions that we could have sold forever,” the complaint reads. “Now all of this valuable inventory is just ash.”

The lawsuit says that prior to the fire, Square Deal had roughly 161,000 postings on Amazon. Now, it says the business has around 13,000.

The owners argue that the fire in The Sub’s window display “was very local” and should have been extinguished quickly with minimal damage.

“Less than a minute of water would have killed the fire, and only the front of The Sub would have suffered damage,” the complaint states. “Instead, because of the Fire Department’s unwritten ‘do not go inside a building to fight the fire’ policy, in tandem with the city’s policy of zero oversight of the Fire Department, fire personnel sent a roof crew to the roof and started an accelerated burn down.”

It continues: “Why? Because fighting fire is dangerous. Precipitating a complete burn-down is safe and easy.”

The complaint suggests that the city’s “unwritten policy” of letting structures burn down is one explanation for the Fire Department’s good safety record, in which “it has been over 30 years” since a firefighter suffered a significant injury on duty.

“... It is a telling statistic, much like a team that goes through a 162-game baseball season without ever being thrown out trying to steal a base,” the complaint reads. “It undoubtedly means that the team was too timid on the basepaths.”

In regard to how the city fought the fire, the owners allege that firefighters “poured accelerant” onto the roof of The Sub “to make the fire appear more advanced.” They say the city’s “vertical ventilation” tactic of breaking a hole in the roof to let heat escape so they can attack the fire from the interior actually provided more oxygen for the fire to spread.

“If the Fire Department had never arrived and the fire was simply left to burn, it would have stayed in The Sub and Square Deal would have been completely spared,” the complaint states.

Listing other fires that occurred in the city in recent years, the lawsuit argues that the city’s “policy of refusing to go into buildings that are on fire directly leads to gratuitously burning buildings down,” and that SLO city firefighters use accelerant to speed up the alleged burn-down “so that the uninformed cannot discern, due to the protracted passage of time, that the building could have been saved with even moderate effort and that the Fire Department had ample time to limit the extent of the destruction.”

The owners say the city has blocked their requests for records related to the fire and that they hope the court’s discovery process will assist in their investigative efforts.

While The Sub Corp. has received insurance proceeds for some of the damages from the fire, Square Deal Recordings & Supplies Inc. has not, and the alleged damages of more than $5 million were “caused solely by (the city’s) taking and damaging of (The Sub and Square Deal’s) property through flawed and defective policies and training.”

“There is abundant evidence of the Fire Department offering stunning fabrications, after incidents replete with planned incompetence, time and time again, resulting in unnecessary damage to San Luis Obispo properties,” the lawsuit reads. “The charade must end.”

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