Berkeley tragedy witnesses sue for ‘emotional harm’

Three Irish women stepped off balcony moments before collapse

Three Irish students who stepped off the fourth-floor balcony in Berkeley, California, last summer moments before it collapsed killing five Dublin students and a young Irish-American woman have sued for emotional distress.

Caroline Conlan, Cliodhna Maloney and Aisling Tallon have taken legal actions against the builder, owner and manager of the Library Gardens apartment block in Berkeley claiming that they have "suffered severe mental and emotion harm" from what they saw during the tragedy of June 16th, 2015, and "for which they have not recovered".

The three Irish students join the families of the six victims of the tragedy – five Dublin students and an Irish-American woman – and the seven survivors who were badly injured in issuing legal proceedings for damages against the companies behind the Californian property.

The women shared the fourth-floor apartment with Aoife Beary, whose 21st birthday the group of friends were celebrating when the balcony collapsed. Ms Beary suffered serious injuries in the accident.


The tragedy claimed the lives of Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, who were all 21 years old and from Dublin, and Ms Burke's cousin Ashley Donohoe (22) of Rohnert Park, California, north of Berkeley.

They were in California for a working summer break under the J-1 visa programme.

Details of what the three flatmates experienced and witnessed as the accident occurred are described graphically in a legal complaint filed last month with California Superior Court for the County of Alameda, which includes the city of Berkeley, by their US lawyers.

The lawsuit says the women suffered “severe mental and emotional harm when they were endangered by and forced to bear witness to the horrific accident that killed and disabled their closest friends”.

The women “happened to step off the balcony and into their fourth-floor apartment just before the balcony broke away from the building and fell”. They believed “they too would be enveloped in the collapse”.

“Having had their own lives in grave peril from the collapse, and having seen, heard and felt the collapse of the balcony followed by seeing and hearing their dearest friends plummeted to the ground below, [the three women] suffered severe emotion and mental injuries for which they have not recovered,” they say in the legal complaint.

The accident would not have happened if the defendants, including the apartment owner Blackrock, manager Greystar and builder Segue Construction, had "not cut corners" and heeded at least one of numerous "red flag" warning signs that the balcony was unsafe, they argued.

The complaint states that the three women had moved into the apartment just two weeks prior to the tragedy. They had no reason to know that “a catastrophe was imminent,” the proceedings state.

“Only by the grace of God were Caroline Conlan, Cliodhna Maloney and Aisling Tallon not themselves on the balcony when it collapsed,” the complaint says.

“As these [WOMEN]saw, heard, felt and experienced the balcony collapsing, each of them believed they would be enveloped in the collapse as well, and feared for their lives and safety,” the lawsuit says.

“During the initial chaos of the collapse, the three young ladies looked down in horror at the heap of bodies and rotted balcony lying on the ground 40 feet below.”

The legal action – issued by attorneys Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard in San José, California – largely replicate the 13 sets of proceedings filed last November by the families of the victims and the survivors.

The parties argue that the defendants did not properly construct the balcony or protect it from the water damage that caused the eight-year-old structure to be infested with dry rot and ultimately to collapse.

Attorney Timothy McMahon, who is representing the three women, said in a statement to San Francisco Bay news outlet, the Mercury News, which first reported their legal actions, said: “As you can imagine, it has been a nightmare and tragedy for all of those involved.

“Above all else, my clients who witnessed these unspeakable events, and fear for their own lives continue to mourn and pray for the loss of their dear friends and those that suffered the horrific injuries from the collapse.”

Alameda County district attorney Nancy O’Malley announced last month that she would not be bringing criminal charges saying that there was “insufficient evident” to take criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company.

The California Contractors State License Board, the building industry regulator, said last week that five building contractors who worked on the property in 2005 and 2006 could lose the licences for failing to follow construction guidelines and for “poor workmanship.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent