Berkeley: New construction laws discussed after balcony collapse

New legislation would close loopholes and require settlements to be reported

California lawmakers intend to legislate against construction practices which may have lead to the Berkeley balcony collapse last June that killed six Irish students and left several others injured.

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.

Experts, government officials and stakeholders testified on Monday before a congressional committee at the State Capitol.

The new legislation would close existing loopholes and require construction companies to report certain out-of-court settlements to the state’s licensing board authorities.

Those legal settlements typically involve no admission of wrongdoing by the contractors and may also include binding confidentiality clauses on all parties.

State senator Jerry Hill pointed to Segue Construction, the lead construction company involved in the Berkeley balcony tragedy, as an example of the practices he hopes to put an end to.

The company had reportedly paid $26.5 million(€23.5m) in construction-defect settlements prior to the balcony collapse last June.

“Our condolences go out to all the families in California and Ireland who were affected by this tragedy,” Senator Hill said as the hearing got under way.

Senator Loni Hancock, a former Berkeley mayor, said she hoped bill SB 465 would reach the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown before the end of the year.

The Berkeley balcony collapse “was truly a nightmare for all of us who lived it,” Hancock said.

“We will never be the same because of the tragedy that happened.”

Current California law doesn’t require contractors to report defect settlements to the Contractors State License Board (CSLB).

Lawmakers point out that the licensing agencies for other trade professions - such as architects and engineers require their licensees to report settlements and judgements.

State authorities did not file criminal charges in connection with the deaths that resulted from the balcony collapse, but the CSLB has referred its investigation of the incident to the California Attorney General’s Office to be considered as an administrative case.

If it were pursued, it could lead to the suspension or revocation of the licenses of five contracting firms involved in the construction of the balcony.

David Fogt, Chief of Enforcement for the CSLB, told the legislators that his agency has been severely limited in what it can do due to the current legal loopholes.

“We are not privy to the settlements,” he said. “Most law firms don’t want to cooperate with us.”

The bill would also include provisions to make sure that certain information regarding construction-defect settlements would also be freely available to the general public.

"Public access to this information takes pressure off the licensing boards," said Richard Zitrin, an expert in legal ethics with the UC Hastings Law School.

Also speaking before the California lawmakers was Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland, who thanked lawmakers for their efforts and pointed out the issue should be of the utmost concern.

The current construction practices “represent a clear and present danger to the people of California,” he said.

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