Families of Berkeley balcony collapse reach $20m partial settlement

Legal action against owner of apartment block and property’s manager set to continue

The families of the six students who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse and the seven survivors will share more than $20 million (€18 million) after a partial settlement was agreed in their legal action.

Defendants involved in the design and construction of the balcony, which collapsed during a party two years ago, agreed to pay the compensation during the discovery phase of the civil litigation in the California Superior Court for the County of Alameda, which covers legal matters in the city of Berkeley.

The multimillion dollar legal action against the owner of the Library Gardens apartment block, New York-based asset management giant Blackrock, and the property's manager, South Carolina-based property company Greystar, is proceeding. A date for the trial against the two firms has been set for early 2018.

Dublin students Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Nick Schuster and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21, and Ms Burke's cousin Ashley Donohoe (22), died when the fourth-floor balcony they were standing on collapsed during a 21st birthday party in the early hours of June 16th, 2015.

All but Ms Donohoe, who was from Rohnert Park, California, were in the US working for the summer under the J-1 visa programme.

Another seven Irish students – Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Seán Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters – suffered catastrophic injuries.

Lawyers for the families of the deceased and survivors have said the sum being paid in the partial settlement is confidential. However, it is likely to exceed $20 million based on the number of defendants sued in the case and the likely amount of professional indemnity insurance available to the companies.

‘Element of justice’

"This settlement will never restore health or life but reflects an element of justice from the wrongdoers for the deaths and serious injuries caused by the tragedy," said San Francisco-based lawyer Matthew Davis, who represents the families of the six deceased students and six of the survivors.

The California firm acting for the parents of Ms Donohoe, Rains Lucia Stern St Phalle & Silver, said the amounts would "never restore health or lives of the students but the payments reflect an effort to maximally compensate the victims within the means of the wrongdoers".

Eustace de St Phalle, representing the Donohoe family, said they would continue to seek legislative changes to force the California construction industry regulator to set a requirement compelling building firms to report settlements relating to poor construction.

“The Donohoe family does not want negligent contractors to be able to hide the settlements of claims related to faulty construction through the use of secret settlements,” he said.

Licence revoked

Last month, Segue Construction, which built the apartment block, had its building licence revoked by the California State Contractors Licensing Board.

The board found that if the balcony had been built as designed, the load of the 13 students would have been “well within the design limits of the balcony structure” and would not have collapsed.

Blackrock, a company with more than €4 trillion in assets under management, has argued the legal action against it, as property owner, is “without merit”.

The families and survivors have claimed Blackrock and its associated companies were made aware of mushrooms growing on the balcony caused by dry rot.

They argue this was “an unambiguous red flag warning that the wood joists were rotting and that the balcony was at risk of collapse.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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

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