Berkeley tragedy: US law aimed at preventing repeat passed

Bill seeking to compel transparency over construction firms with negligent histories adopted

 Irish exchange student Aoife Beary testifying last month at the Assembly Appropriations Committee regarding Senate Bill 465, in Sacramento, California. Screengrab: The Irish Times

Irish exchange student Aoife Beary testifying last month at the Assembly Appropriations Committee regarding Senate Bill 465, in Sacramento, California. Screengrab: The Irish Times

 

New laws in the US aimed at preventing a repeat of last year’s Berkeley balcony tragedy in San Francisco that killed six students have been unanimously passed by legislators.

The California State Senate adopted by 37 votes to zero a Bill that seeks to compel greater transparency of construction companies with negligent histories and impose stricter building standards.

Senate Bill 465 will now go to the State governor for consideration. It will be seen by many as a legacy of the Berkeley disaster in June 2015, which claimed six lives and severely injured seven people. Five of the deceased were on J1 visas from Ireland.

The incident occurred during a 21st birthday celebration for Dubliner Aoife Beary, who gave emotional testimony to the Senate last month, imploring them to introduce new laws governing construction standards.

In a tearful appeal she told the California legislators her birthday would forever mark the anniversary of the death of her friends.

‘People died’

“None of this needed to happen,” she told them. “I cannot believe why you are even debating this Bill. People died.”

Ms Beary’s contribution was followed by those of her mother Angela and Jackie Donohoe, who lost her daughter Ashley when the fourth-floor balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens apartment complex.

The new legislation ensures state agencies overseeing the construction sector are taking appropriate steps to improve building standards.

It requires contractors convicted of crimes related to their work to report that information to the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), the regulating body.

The CSLB will determine whether receiving legal settlement information on construction defect cases would be useful in their role of protecting the public.

Further, SB 465 requires the Building Standards Commission to look at improving safety requirements for balconies and outdoor structures.

The draft laws were introduced by senators Jerry Hill and Loni Hancock, who represents the City of Berkeley.

History of settlements

In the aftermath of the deaths, it emerged the builder of the apartment complex had a history of construction defect settlements and had made payouts to the tune of $26.5 million (€23.6 million).

At a hearing earlier this year, chief of enforcement for the CSLB said: “Had we known about the [law] suits and the underlying reasons for them, we would have absolutely taken action.”

At the State Capitol Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing into the Bill’s passage earlier this month, Jackie Donohoe said: “If the Construction Board had been aware of past issues with other balconies, the deaths of these six kids could have been prevented.”

She said she never would have dreamed of telling her daughter, who was from San Francisco, “don’t walk out on a balcony in the United States of America”.

Devastating injuries

However, the hearing was dominated by the testimony of Ms Beary, who is still coming to terms with devastating injuries that changed her life.

“My friends and I were so looking forward to our summer in Berkeley,” she told a chamber suspended in silence.

“I miss my friends so much. I have known them since we started school together at four years of age.

“We had grown up together. And now my birthday will always be their anniversary.”