Thursday 8 December 2016

Judge rules owners of tragic Berkeley balcony building 'cannot get out of lawsuit'

Dorothy Atkins

Published 26/10/2016 | 09:10

A vigil in Peace Park near the scene for the Berkeley victims the night after the collapse. Photo: Getty Images
A vigil in Peace Park near the scene for the Berkeley victims the night after the collapse. Photo: Getty Images

A California judge ruled on Tuesday that the owners of a Berkeley building that collapsed killing six young students cannot get out of a lawsuit.

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The ongoing lawsuit alleges the company had assumed liability for the project’s defects from the property’s original owner.

Judge Brad Seligman found that Granite Library Gardens LP cannot quickly get out of a lawsuit brought by a roofing company, because it had assumed liability for the property’s defects from its original owners when it entered entered into a contract with the owners in September 2005.

Granite had argued that it was not liable for construction defects, because the contract only applied to negligence during the construction of the building. The roofing company that brought the suit  — IRC Technology Inc. — however, argued that the contract encompassed negligence by the owner in maintaining and operating the building even after its construction was complete.

“That interpretation makes sense when viewed in light of the example of this case, which is unusual in the horrible extent of the injuries involved,” Judge Seligman said.

The suit stems from an underlying lawsuit filed by the families of the survivors of the collapse against more than 35 defendants in 2015. The suit alleges that the owners and management company were negligent through failing to fix damage to the balcony after “red flags” were spotted.

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 suit alleged the defendants, which include Blackrock, the trillion dollar investment fund that financed the project, failed to act when informed that mushrooms were growing on the balcony, a sign that wooden joists were affected by dry rot.

Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller, all 21, died after they were thrown four floors to the ground during a friend’s birthday party in the university city of Berkeley. Burke’s cousin, 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe from California, also died in the tragedy on 16 June.

In April, Judge Seligman ruled that the survivors and families of victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse to sue for additional punitive damages.

It means the survivors and families can sue the owners, management company and the lead firm involved in the construction of the Library Gardens building in Berkeley for additional damages paid on top of basic compensation, which are designed to discourage similar conduct in future.

They also claim the construction firm was negligent in its use of materials and the standard of waterproofing work done.

The lawsuits are proceeding after a decision in March by the district attorney of Alameda County not to file criminal charges, citing an inability to prove manslaughter through negligence beyond a reasonable doubt.

The companies have all denied they were at fault for the collapse of the balcony in June 2015.

The cases are currently at a pre-trial phase and are likely to be heard in full in 2017.

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