Friday 24 May 2019

Judge rules Berkeley balcony collapse families can sue for extra damages

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

Dorothy Atkins and Shane Phelan

A judge in California has rejected objections to rulings allowing the survivors and families of victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse to sue for additional damages.

At a hearing in the US overnight, Judge Brad Seligman stood over tentative rulings he issued earlier this week.

Workmen examine the scene of the Berkeley balcony collapse. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Workmen examine the scene of the Berkeley balcony collapse. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

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 punitive damages.

Read More: Over 600 faulty balconies found in wake of Berkeley disaster

These are additional damages paid on top of basic compensation, which are designed to discourage similar conduct in future.

In theory, the ruling means damages in the case could increase by several million dollars should a court rule in favour of the survivors and families.

The seven survivors of the balcony collapse and relatives of the six students who died have claimed the owners and management company were negligent through failing to fix damage to the balcony after “red flags” were spotted.

Read More: Berkeley contractors censured

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

At an administrative hearing at the Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, lawyer Reuben Jacobson, on behalf of the management company Greystar, contested Judge Seligman's tentative ruling to deny a motion to strike punitive-damages allegations.

Mr Jacobson argued the plaintiffs failed to prove or specifically name one person of authority at Greystar who knew of mushrooms blooming on the balcony's joists and that it tilted when people stood on it, prior to the balcony's collapse.

Judge Seligman heard Mr Jacobson's objection, but did not alter any of the six tentative rulings released on Monday, which largely sided in favour of the survivors and relatives of the dead.

Read More: Shane Phelan: No one will accept blame for tragedy

The rulings deny Greystar, building owners Blackrock Inc, and Segue Construction Inc's requests to strike punitive damages from the lawsuit.

Those companies are three of the main defendants out of 32 parties being sued.

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

However, the burden of proof for a civil action is lower than required in a criminal court.

Greystar, BlackRock and Segue have all denied they were at fault for the collapse of the balcony last June, which claimed the lives of five Irish J1 students and a young Irish-American woman and serious injured seven others last June.

It is alleged Greystar and BlackRock, which is a trillion dollar investment fund, failed to act when informed that mushrooms were growing on the balcony, a sign that wooden joists were affected by dry rot.

The defendants and associated companies had claimed the lawsuits “did not contain facts to support the conclusions” and argued it would be wrong to allow claims for punitive damages.

However, Judge Seligman found there were “sufficient facts” to allow the punitive damages claims.

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

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