Balcony collapse victims sue building owner

Survivors and family members of those who died in the collapse of a balcony at a Berkeley apartment in June filed 12 separate lawsuits Thursday against the owners, managers and builders of the apartment complex, alleging the tragedy could have been averted if the building was properly constructed and maintained.

The suits were filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly and Schoenberger on behalf of the seven people injured in the June 16 collapse and the families of five of the six people killed. They are suing building owner BlackRock, property manager Greystar, and the general contractor that built the complex, Segue Construction, as well as subcontractors involved.

The 13 students were at a birthday party in Apartment 405 on the fourth floor of the Library Gardens Apartment Complex at 12:41 a.m., when the apartment’s balcony gave way and dumped them 40 feet to the pavement below.

Five visiting Irish students, identified as Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, fell to their deaths, leading to their families filing lawsuits today. The family of the sixth person killed, 22-year-old Rohnert Park resident Ashley Donohoe, did not file a suit today.

A city investigation found that the collapse, in which the balcony’s wooden joists sheared off about 16 inches from the building’s face, was caused by severe dry rot. Moisture had seeped into the sealed deck and rotted out the wooden joists, according to the city.

The City Council enacted an emergency ordinance requiring regular inspections and stricter building regulations for outdoor balconies and patios. The state is considering updating its building codes as well.

The suits allege that during the building’s construction in 2005, general contractor Segue installed cheaper wood that was more vulnerable to water intrusion in the balcony, contrary to the approved design plans.

The contractors then left the framed balcony exposed to rainfall for months before waterproofing. The wood was already saturated with water when it was waterproofed, which had the effect of sealing the water in, according to the complaint.

Once the building was open, tenants living in the apartment building between October 2008 and the summer of 2010 reported finding large mushrooms growing on the balcony, an indication that the wood inside was rotting, according to the suit. The tenants complained about the mushrooms but the owners and managers did not make necessary inspections or repairs.

In the months prior to the collapse, the balcony had even started to tilt away from the building when people stood on it, according to the complaint.

The suits seek unspecified damages for each defendant for negligence in the construction and maintenance of the apartment.