Racine Zoo caught in middle of $1M lawsuit regarding Lakeview Community Center fire | Local News

RACINE — There is an ongoing three-way lawsuit involving the City of Racine’s insurer, the Racine Zoo and the company that formerly was responsible for the 2019-2020 Chinese Lantern Festival at the zoo regarding the September 2019 fire that destroyed the former Lakeview Community Center.

It started in May 2021 when the city’s insurer — Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Allianz — filed a federal lawsuit against the Racine Zoological Society (i.e. the Racine Zoo), after the city received an insurance settlement for $967,322.27 from Fireman’s Fund regarding the community center fire.

Firefighters battle a blaze at Lakeview Community Center, 201 Goold St., on Sept. 11, 2019.

Jonathon Sadowski

The devastating fire allegedly started when one of the artisans hired to set up the lantern festival was cooking something in the community center, but left the food unattended, leading to a blaze that has left behind a scorched and boarded-up safety hazard.

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In responding to the Fireman’s Fund’s lawsuit against the zoo, the zoo filed its own complaint alleging negligence against the company that was hired to put together the festival. As such, a rare legal situation was created: The Racine Zoological Society is listed as both a defendant and a plaintiff — as it is being sued by Fireman’s Fund while it is also suing the lantern company, all within the same lawsuit.

The company hired by the zoo to put together the festival is known as China Lantern International LLC/Zigong Lantern Group, which is registered in Florida but employs Chinese artisans.

The lawsuit has also been filled with stutter steps. On Nov. 30, Zigong filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit; that motion is not publicly available, but the complicated lawsuit remains ongoing. There have been multiple motions for extensions filed by Zigong, and there was a summons to Zigong that went unexecuted in December 2021.

Future plans for burned down Lakeview Community Center are being 'put on the shelf'

Racine lantern festival

People enjoy the Chinese lanterns on Nov. 22, 2019, at the Chinese Lantern Festival at the Racine Zoo.

The most recent filing in the case was Aug. 2, when a court ruled the insurance company won an argument, shutting down a defense raised by the zoo in which the zoo claimed it should not have been liable for the damages since it was an employee of Zigong — and not an employee of the zoo — who caused the damage. The court ruled in the insurance company’s favor, since Zigong was working for the zoo at the time.

If the Fireman’s Fund wins the lawsuit, it is unlikely the city would see any direct benefit. The original lawsuit seeks the zoo to pay the insurance company the same amount it paid to the city. According to the city, the $967,322.27 remains unspent. The payout was not enough to tear down the community center and mitigate the damage from the fire, the city said.

“The city is not involved, or named, in the lawsuit between the Fireman’s Fund and the zoo. No city funds will be effected, regardless of the outcome,” City Clerk Tara McMenamin said in an email.

Last week, the city said that a yearlong study of the property conducted by two Milwaukee firms was fruitless due to increasing construction costs, and “there are no current plans to demolish the former Lakeview Community Center,” McMenamin said.

The lantern festival has not returned since its 2019-2020 run.


Attorneys for the Racine Zoo said they “are unable to comment on this matter at this time due to the ongoing litigation.”

According to Zigong, the zoo is suing the wrong entity.

Jonathan M. Woods, Esq., a Georgia attorney defending Zigong, said that Zigong is only a broker that connects with entities like zoos and museums that want to put on Chinese lantern festivals; he company that actually put up the lights and whose employee caused the fire was the similarly named Zigong Lantern Culture Industry Group — both entities are named after the “Zigong” region of China.

In an email, Woods said: “The Racine Zoo has held our client, an American company, hostage in this frivolous third-party lawsuit for over a year despite knowing that our clients had no involvement in the fire that occurred on the Zoo’s watch and was caused by contractors from a Chinese company, Zigong Lantern Culture Industry Group, which the zoo contracted with. The Culture Industry Group has a history of questionable business dealings and ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

“The zoo has been unwilling to sue the Culture Industry Group because it doesn’t want to bear the considerable cost and expense of serving it in China under the Hague Convention. It has repeatedly amended its complaint to avoid our motions to dismiss. The zoo’s latest amendment again demonstrates that it has no legal claim against our clients, and we will be seeking sanctions against the zoo for its frivolous and abusive litigation tactics.”

The attorney representing Fireman’s Fund did not reply to emails seeking comment on this story.