SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The federal trial for the 1986 Dupont Plaza Hotel fire, in which 97 people died, began Wednesday with up to $1.7 billion at stake in one of the largest personal damages trials in U.S. history.
'Eighth hour has arrived,' U.S. District judge Raymond Acosta told about 60 lawyers at the start of jury selection for the trial at the federal courthouse in San Juan's colonial section.
Jury selection kicked off the trial that involves about 2,300 plaintiffs and 250 defendants and is expected to last about six months.
The 20-story Dupont Plaza luxury hotel was devastated by a blaze Dec. 31, 1986, which killed 97 people -- the second-worst hotel fire in U.S. history. The worst was the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, in which 146 people died.
Three members of the hotel's Teamsters Union local pleaded guilty to setting the fire amid bitter contract talks and have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Two other Teamsters face 97 first-degree murder charges and are on trial in a local court.
Initial stages of the trial are expected to focus on the question of who owned the Dupont Plaza and their liabilities. The beachfront hotel has been renamed the Palm Hotel and Casino but has not reopened.
Ownership is held by a maze of corporations and subsidiaries, with the principal owners alleged to be William Lyon, a Los Angeles real estate magnate; William Eberle, a Boise, Idaho, investor; and Brian Corbel, a Los Angeles hotel developer.
Lawyers and legal observers say the case is among the biggest in U.S. history both in the total amount of damages sought -- $1.7 billion - and the number of defendants and plaintiffs involved.
In addition, personal-damage cases generally are 'settled before they go to trial,' said Suzanne Foulds, administrator of the roughly 2 million documents in the case's Joint Document Depository.
'This case is unusual in that it has remained intact over the past two years. People haven't dropped by the wayside,' she said. 'It's been a real honest-to-goodness case.'
Acosta issued a gag order on court personnel Friday after newspapers reported that six manufacturers and a group of architects had settled out of court for a total of $1.75 million.
The San Juan Star newspaper also reported Saturday that the Sheraton group of corporations, which had originally owned the Dupont Plaza, had settled out of court for $36 million.