Berkeley tragedy: Builders paid $3m to settle lawsuit over 'shoddy construction on apartment balconies that led to rot'
Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30
THE builders of the apartment complex where a balcony collapsed, killing six Irish students, paid $3m to settle a lawsuit last year that claimed problems with dry rot and substandard balconies in another complex.
The investigation in Berkeley is now focused on the water-proofing of eight critical wooden structural supports for the balcony that collapsed early on Tuesday morning.
Mayor of Berkeley Tom Bates yesterday told reporters he believed the wood had not been sealed properly and this may have led to moisture damage.
He said that appeared to be the primary cause of the tragedy.
"More than likely, it was caused by rain and water damage that was caused to the support beams," he said.
The victims - five from Ireland and one an Irish-American from California - plunged to their deaths from the fourth storey of the apartment complex at Library Gardens in the university city's Kittredge Street.
They were Olivia Burke (21), Eoghan Culligan (21), Niccolai (Nick) Schuster (21), Lorcán Miller (21), Eimear Walsh (21), and Ashley Donohoe (22).
Medical staff are closely monitoring two other Irish female students who are in a critical condition, while a further five also remain in hospital .
The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper today reports court filings show that the firm that constructed the building, Segue Construction Inc. of Pleasanton, paid $3 million in 2014 to settle a lawsuit over “water penetration” problems on dozens of balconies on a San Jose apartment complex.
Segue specialises in building apartments, and was the subject of a lawsuit in 2010 in which the owners of the 245-unit Pines at North Park Apartments at 70 Descanso Drive in San Jose accused Segue of “failing to design the breezeways, private balconies and stairwells at the project in substantial compliance with all applicable local and state codes and according to industry standard.”
The Chronicle reports that Segue blamed the problems on a subcontractor before settling with the apartment building’s owner, Irvine Co. LLC.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for Segue, said the balconies in San Jose were “substantially different” from the one that collapsed in Berkeley. “It is like comparing apples and oranges,” he told the Chronicle.
Press Association is reporting that Segue also settled another lawsuit focused on an apartment project in Millbrae, where among other things, Seque was accused of improperly waterproofing balconies.
"They are completely different projects. They are completely different types of balconies," Mr Singer said. "Segue Construction has never had an incident like this in its history."
News of the lawsuits comes after a US official said the balcony which collapsed was only originally included in the Berkeley building design as a decorative feature.
The Irish Independent has learned the balconies became the focus of a planning wrangle a decade ago between the City of Berkeley Design Review Committee and Segue.
A February 21, 2002, briefing memo about the building revealed City of Berkeley planners insisted they "need sample of balcony material" and that they would "prefer a lighter touch for two balconies on the Kittredge side".
Both San Francisco civil engineers and Library Gardens complex residents yesterday said dry rot was feared to have degraded the timber supports.
Berkeley officials are also examining resident complaints of flooding in February 2013.
The balconies were initially intended to be decorative when the plans for the complex were submitted for approval a decade ago.
Former Berkeley Design Review Committee official Carrie Olson, who abstained from the approval vote, said the balconies were for decorative rather than practical purposes.
"(They were) definitely not large enough to be what the city would call an 'open-space balcony', where groups of people could stand outside," she said.
Under a 57-page California planning regulation dating from 1998 and applied to the complex, it emerged the balconies were simply required to have a structural capacity to handle 28kg (60lbs) per square foot.
City official Matthai Chakko said the investigation into the tragedy was accelerating.
The City of Berkeley later confirmed a second balcony at the Library Gardens complex had now been found to be structurally unsafe and was a "collapse hazard".
BlackRock Ltd, which serves as the investment adviser for a real estate fund which owns Library Gardens, said that it was "terribly saddened by the tragic incident" and that it was in contact with the building's management company and an independent structural engineer.