Monday 24 October 2016

Berkeley firms seek to limit damages claims

Published 06/04/2016 | 02:30

The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke
The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke
The scene of the Berkeley balcony tragedy which claimed the lives of six young Irish students: Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, and Eimear Walsh. Photo: REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Companies implicated in the Berkeley balcony collapse are seeking to water down the multi-million-dollar lawsuits being taken by survivors and relatives of those who died.

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Several firms are trying to limit the damages they may have to pay as a blame game rages over the deaths of five Irish J1 students and a young Irish-American woman.

Proceedings in California also look set to be further complicated following indications some of the companies may end up suing each other to establish who is responsible.

At least 10 of the 32 companies being sued by survivors and relatives have asked a court to strike out claims for punitive damages. These are additional damages which would have to be paid on top of basic compensation for the victims.

The extra punishment is being sought to deter the companies involved from repeating the negligent behaviour alleged in the lawsuits. The victims say the lawsuits aim to ensure such a tragedy cannot happen again.

However, court filings show at least 10 of the defendants, including the owners of the Library Gardens building, the apartment block management company and a construction firm, want the punitive damages claims thrown out.

Each of the defendants has sought to poke holes in the civil suits being brought by lawyers representing the families of the six who died and seven Irish students who survived, but suffered serious injuries.

BlackRock Inc, the trilliondollar investment firm which ultimately owns the building, claimed the lawsuits "did not contain facts to support the conclusions". A similar argument was made by Greystar, the firm which managed the building.

Both are alleged to have been negligent by failing to act when there were signs the integrity of the balcony had been compromised by dry rot. The accusations are being denied.

Building firm Segue Construction has also filed a motion asking a court to strike out punitive damages claims.

It said lawyers for the victims had not provided specific facts to back up allegations the company acted fraudulently and with malice when it was the general contractor for the Library Gardens complex and responsible for waterproofing the balcony. Segue claimed the lawsuits relied on "emotionally charged" wording and did not "demonstrate concrete facts supporting punitive damages".


Students Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke and Olivia's Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe died after falling to the ground when the fourth-floor balcony gave way last June.

Seven other Irish students, Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters, were seriously injured.

The survivors and relatives of the dead are pressing ahead with lawsuits after a district attorney decided last week there was insufficient evidence to support manslaughter charges.

In the filings, four defendants suggested the students may have contributed to the collapse of the balcony. One firm involved in the construction of the building, Arizona-based Abacus Project Management Inc, went as far as to claim the students knew, or ought to have known, of the risks and hazards of being on the balcony.

It argues that the claims made in the lawsuits should be barred in full or in part because the condition of the balcony was "open and obvious".

Irish Independent

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