Multi-million dollar negligence lawsuits taken by the survivors and families of victims in the Berkeley balcony tragedy have received a major boost after a court rejected efforts by defendants to limit the level of damages they can be sued for.
A Californian judge denied applications by the main defendants in the suits, who had been seeking to have claims for punitive damages struck out.
These are additional damages paid on top of basic compensation, designed to punish offenders and to discourage similar conduct in future.
The ruling is significant, as it is thought that punitive damages could amount to several million dollars if a court ends up ruling in favour of the survivors and families of the dead.
Court documents seen by the Irish Independent show Judge Brad Seligman ruled on Monday that he was rejecting applications made by the owners and the management company of the Library Gardens apartment building, where the balcony collapsed.
The building is owned by trillion-dollar investment fund BlackRock and managed by a company called Greystar.
Both rejected allegations they were at fault for the collapse of the balcony, which claimed the lives of five Irish J1 students and a young Irish-American woman and seriously injured seven others last June.
It is alleged they 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.
He said claims for such damages rested on a theory that both BlackRock and Greystar "consciously disregarded a substantial threat to the lives and safety" of apartment tenants by choosing not to investigate the warning signs.
Judge Seligman's ruling is described as tentative, meaning it is open to parties to disagree with his conclusions and to make oral arguments in the court in a bid to have it overturned. Nonetheless, it comes as a significant boost to the cause of the survivors and victims' families.
The cases are currently at a pre-trial phase and are likely to be heard in full at Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, California, later this year.