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Sunday 25 September 2016

Trillion-dollar US firm vows to 'vigorously' fight Berkeley victims in court

BlackRock Inc claims civil suits for damages are 'without merit'

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

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
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
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 BlackRock sign is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York. Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/Files

The owners of the building at the centre of the fatal Berkeley balcony collapse plan to "vigorously" fight the multi-million dollar lawsuits being taken by survivors and relatives of the dead.

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BlackRock Inc claimed the civil suits were "without merit", according to documents seen by the Irish Independent.

The New York corporation announced its intention to contest the case in a filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

It is the first defendant in the case to publicly state its intention to fight allegations of negligence.

The move comes as a further blow to the families of the five Irish students and one Irish-American student who died and seven others who suffered serious injuries as a result of the tragedy last June.

Earlier this week, prosecutors announced there would be no criminal charges following a nine-month investigation.

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

Now the families and survivors will be up against the financial might of a corporation considered to be the world's largest asset management firm.

In a legal filing to a court in California, lawyers representing most of the families also warned that more defendants could end up contesting the case.

The BlackRock sign is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York. Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/Files
The BlackRock sign is pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York. Photo: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/Files

"It is anticipated that some defendants will file challenges to the pleadings or portions thereof," said lawyers Michael Kelly and Matthew Davis.

The remaining defendants could announce their intentions at a hearing that is scheduled for the Alameda County Superior Court in California later this month.

Debris scattered on the pavement after the balcony collapse. Photo: REUTERS
Debris scattered on the pavement after the balcony collapse. Photo: REUTERS

BlackRock Inc and six related companies were among 35 defendants named in lawsuits filed last November.

Claims against three of the defendants were subsequently withdrawn.

Workers remove part of a balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley
Workers remove part of a balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley

The remaining 32 defendants include companies who owned, built and managed the Library Gardens building in Berkeley, California, where the balcony of apartment 405 collapsed.

Unsafe

Thirteen lawsuits filed by the survivors and relatives of the victims last November claimed the defendants "cut corners" and did not heed numerous warnings indicating the balcony was unsafe.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny signs the book of condolence for the Berkeley tragedy victims at Mansion House today. Photo: Twitter/@merrionstreet
Taoiseach Enda Kenny signs the book of condolence for the Berkeley tragedy victims at Mansion House today. Photo: Twitter/@merrionstreet

In relation to the BlackRock companies, it was claimed they had notice that the balcony had not been constructed in accordance with accepted safety practices.

It was claimed these companies knew the balcony would be subject to accelerated wood rot and be dangerous and unsafe, but failed to fix the problems as it would be too costly, embarrassing and inconvenient.

The lawsuits contain claims the BlackRock companies were made aware that mushrooms were growing on the balcony.

It is argued in the lawsuits that this was "an unambiguous red flag warning that the wooden joists were rotting and that the balcony was at risk of collapse".

It was claimed the BlackRock companies "purposely and wilfully endangered the health and safety of tenants" by not intervening to ensure the balconies were fixed or placed off limits.

However, in an annual report filed with the SEC, BlackRock Inc said it believed "the claims in the lawsuits are without merit" and said the corporation "intends to vigorously defend the actions".

Irish J1 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.

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

The district attorney of Alameda County in California, Nancy O'Malley, announced on Tuesday she would not be pursuing criminal charges.

She said she did not believe it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that any one company or individual had committed manslaughter through being negligent.

However, there is a lower burden of proof for the civil actions, which will be able to call upon much of the investigative work carried out by the district attorney's office.

The civil cases are being streamlined so they will all be heard together.

All of the legal actions are similarly worded, with each having the stated aim of holding accountable those that bear responsibility so that a similar tragedy never occurs.

The suits describe horrific injuries suffered by the survivors and the "shock and terror" they experienced.

Given the number of plaintiffs and defendants involved, it is likely to be several months before the cases get beyond the preliminary hearing stage.

Firm operates in 30 countries

BlackRock Inc is considered the largest asset management firm in the world and is best known in Ireland for conducting bank stress tests.

The US corporation has $4.6 trillion (€4.05 trillion) in assets under its control.

It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has 12,000 employees in 30 countries.

The corporation also specialises in risk management and was called upon by US regulators to value assets in Bear Stearns and AIG following the financial meltdown in 2008.

In Ireland, it was recruited by the Government to conduct stress tests on the banks in 2011, as required under the troika bailout deal.

The corporation's Irish arm, BlackRock Asset Management Ireland Ltd, is based in Dublin's IFSC.

That company's most recent set of accounts, for 2014, stated that the Irish-based entity was managing Stg£261bn (€326bn) in assets.

Its post-tax profits for that year were Stg£40.9m (€51.1m).

According to the Central Bank register, the company has operated 12 separate investment funds in Ireland since 1995.

The Irish operation currently manages several funds and makes its money by charging management and performance fees.

Irish Independent

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