New construction law following Berkeley disaster passes stage

Move to introduce legislation following deaths of six students last summer

New laws to enable greater oversight of the construction industry following the deaths of six students when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, last summer have passed a crucial stage of enactment.

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

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

The bill, which was authored by California state senators Jerry Hill and Loni Hancock, was passed with a unanimous vote by the committee’s Democrats, while the Republican members abstained.


It will now have to pass a vote on the floor of the state assembly before coming back to the state senate for a final vote. It will then go to California governor Jerry Brown to be signed into law.

Speaking to The Irish Times on Thursday night, Mr Hill said the emotional testimony delivered by Ms Beary on Wednesday had greatly contributed to its passing the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“The testimony yesterday was so powerful that nobody could vote against it,” he said. “We need this law to prevent other tragedies from taking the lives of more people in the future.”

Following the Berkeley disaster, it was discovered that the firm that built the apartment complex had a history of construction defect cases and paid $26.5 million in settlements.

The Contractors State License Board, which regulates building contractors, was unaware of the firm’s many settlements, because – unlike architects, engineers and doctors – contractors are not required to disclose such information.

The bill requires the regulator to study actions taken against contractors and report to the legislature by January 2018 as to whether it can better protect the public if contractors are compelled to report judgments, arbitration awards and settlement payments for construction defects that exceed a certain amount.

It also requires the state’s Building Standards Commission to convene a working group of stakeholders to determine whether California needs to make its building standards tougher for construction, inspection and maintenance of residential balconies.

The bill failed last year in the Assembly Business and Professions Committee following opposition by the construction industry. The legislation initially attempted to require contractors to report defective construction settlements and lawsuits to the regulator.

The construction industry withdrew its opposition after the bill was watered down to only require the regulator to study whether the public would be best served if contractors were required to report lawsuits or settlements involving allegations of defective work.

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter