Berkeley balcony collapse relatives settle cases against firms

Apartments owner Blackrock and manager Greystar pay multimillion euro settlements

A candlelight vigil is held on June 17th, 2015, for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

A candlelight vigil is held on June 17th, 2015, for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

 

Relatives of the six students who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse and the seven survivors have settled legal actions against the corporate owner and property manager of the Californian building.

Lawyers for the families declined to say how much was paid in the settlements, saying this was confidential, but the figure is said to total a substantial multimillion-dollar sum.

The settlements with Blackrock, one of the biggest investment companies in the world, and Greystar, the biggest manager of apartments in the United States, end all but one of the lawsuits taken by the families and survivors in the Californian courts over the June 2015 tragedy.

The two corporations were the main targets of the litigation taken by the families and students.

Of more than 30 defendants sued, a single subcontractor involved in building the apartment block a decade ago has refused to settle and is the only remaining defendant before the courts.

Dublin students Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Nick Schuster and Eimear Walsh, all 21, and Ms Burke’s cousin Ashley Donohoe, aged 22, died when a fourth-floor balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens apartments during a 21st birthday party early on June 16th, 2015.

J-1 visas

All of the students, with the exception of Ms Donohoe, a student from Rohnert Park, north of San Francisco, were in the US for the summer on the popular J-1 student working visas.

Another seven students – Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Seán Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters – suffered serious injuries in the 12-metre fall.

It was one of the worst tragedies involving young Irish people living abroad and led to multimillion-dollar claims for damages after it was found that the Library Gardens apartment block was built using unstable materials that caused dry rot damage in the balcony’s wooden joists.

In May the families of the deceased and the survivors reached settlements with all but one of the building contracting companies which made up the bulk of the defendants in the civil actions.

The legal actions against New York-based Blackrock and related companies and the South Carolina-based company Greystar and their related companies were due to go to trial in February.

The families and students had argued that Blackrock and Greystar should have been aware of mushrooms growing on the balcony caused by dry rot and that this was “an unambiguous red flag warning that the wood joists were rotting and that the balcony was at risk of collapse”.

San Francisco-based lawyer Eustace de Saint Phalle, who represents Ashley Donohoe’s family, said: “The Donohoe family was insistent that there could be no ‘secret settlement’ designed to prevent the parties from discussing the facts of the case and what they believe to be the cause of this tragedy.”

Past claims

It emerged after the tragedy that Segue Construction, the California company that built the apartments, paid millions to settle past claims about rotted balconies and building defects.

The Donohoe family has said the most important factor of the settlement is that it will allow them to continue to push for legislative changes to avoid a similar tragedy happening again.

“Nothing will stop us from continuing our fight,” said the Donohoes in a statement.

They want regular inspections of balconies, proper design and the use of proper building materials, and a ban on secret settlements that allow contractors to hide defective work.

The family’s attorney said that they believe the changes are necessary “to prevent another tragedy, not just for Californians but for all the J-1 visa students who will come here in the future”.

San Francisco law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, which represented the families of five of the deceased students and the seven survivors, confirmed the settlements with Blackrock Realty Advisors, a company connected with the investment giant, and Greystar RS California.

Neither Blackrock or Greystar discovered the wood rot during the inspections of the property, the law firm said, and no one contended that the victims were in any way responsible for what happened.

Policies changed

Both corporations have changed their policies on inspections as a result of the tragedy.

“Blackrock and Greystar have adopted policies and procedures regarding the inspections of balconies on the properties that they own or manage on a regularly scheduled basis,” said the firm.

“The parties also have agreed to work to promote greater awareness of balcony safety issues and take appropriate actions to prevent future tragedies of this nature.”