Friday 21 October 2016

Berkeley tragedy: Several lawsuits over defective balconies filed

Shane Phelan and Ralph Riegel

Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30

A worker measures near the remaining wood from an apartment building balcony that collapsed in Berkeley
A worker measures near the remaining wood from an apartment building balcony that collapsed in Berkeley
Mary Alexander

There have been several personal injury lawsuits over defective balconies in the greater San Francisco area in recent years, according to local legal experts.

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One lawyer told the Irish Independent multi-million dollar settlements were relatively common.

These included a case where a 41-year-old man, who was paralysed after a balcony gave way in July 2009, received a settlement of $5.5m (€4.8m).

Ray Catudal, fell from a deck on a four-story apartment complex. He was paralyzed from the chest down and sustained a traumatic brain injury.

The railing did not satisfy minimum strength requirements required by the California Building Code.

So prevalent are such incidents in the Bay Area that some law firms specialise in cases involving unsafe and defective balconies. Mary Alexander, who represented Mr Catudal, is one such lawyer.


"There are a lot of these cases in the San Francisco area with the wood construction and the weather," she said.

"People who own these properties are renting them out and they don't want to put the money into them to make them safe."

Ms Alexander described the events in Berkeley as "a terrible tragedy", adding: "The families deserve to have compensation and justice for this ... My advice to them would be to get a lawyer now. They need to make sure that the evidence is preserved.

"I understand that the city of Berkeley is preserving the evidence, but I would ask are they going to keep it long enough.

"The older a case is, the colder the facts get. You need to have litigation in order to ensure they preserve it."

The apartment complex where the six students died was the subject of multiple inspections by housing officers.

However, city officials are now trying to determine if any visits since January 2007 involved a detailed examination of the timber-supported balconies on the upper floor of the complex.

City authorities are also trying to determine if an inspection addressed complaints by residents of flooding at the complex in February 2013.

It is feared there may be a link between the flooding and the dry rot believed to have weakened the wooden joists.

City of Berkeley engineers ordered removal of a second balcony directly below the balcony which failed. It was found structurally unsafe, though officials did not specify if this was due to dry rot.

The Library Gardens builder, Segue Construction, has rejected any suggestion two law suits against it of $3m and $3.5m over improper water-proofing of balconies in San Jose and Millbrae were in any way linked to the Berkeley incident.

Both lawsuits were settled by Segue after being taken by residents over wood rot.

"(They have) no bearing on this tragedy," Segue spokesman Sam Singer said. He said the cases involved totally different balcony types.

Authorities across San Francisco have ordered all timber-supported balconies be checked as a precaution.

The failed balcony is now in a secure storage area where the timber supports and waterproofing are undergoing rigorous engineering tests.

The building is owned by New York-based investment firm Blackrock; is lease-managed by Greystar, who have operations in California, South Carolina and Texas; and was built by Segue Ltd, who are based 40km from Berkeley.

Former Berkeley Design Review Committee member, Carrie Olson, who abstained on the approval vote for the Library Gardens complex in 2001, said tighter controls of "decorative" balconies are needed.

"It seems that those students were just doing what young people do, crowding onto a balcony," she said.

Irish Independent

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