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Saturday 3 December 2016

Authorities 'unaware' of Berkeley builder's €23m lawsuit payouts

Berkeley tragedy balcony
Berkeley tragedy balcony

CALIFORNIAN authorities had no idea that the construction firm that developed the Berkeley complex where six students died in a balcony collapse had paid out $26m (€23m) in lawsuit settlements in only six years.

Three investigations are now under way in San Francisco into the Library Gardens tragedy on June 16 in which six students died and seven were injured.

Five of the dead were Irish, and two Irish students remain in a critical condition in Berkeley hospitals.

Alameda County district attorney Nancy O'Malley is conducting twin civil and criminal investigations into how eight timber balcony beams on a complex built in 2007 could severely rot and then catas- trophically fail.

leaks

A third probe is being conducted by the Contractors State Licence Board (CSLB), the body charged with regulating all builders operating in California. The CSLB regulates 300,000 construction firms and sub-contractors.

However, it was totally un-aware that Segue Construction had paid out $26m in lawsuit settlements over the past six years.

Several of those settlements involved claims for damage related to water leaks.

In two cases, San Jose and Millbrae, the damage claims involved timber balconies.

Segue insisted those lawsuits are totally unrelated to the Berkeley tragedy.

The firm, which obtained an operator licence from CSLB in 1992 and renewed it last year, insisted it is co-operating fully with all investigations.

The sub-contractor that undertook the waterproofing work at the Library Gardens complex, R Bros, is also co-operating with the various probes.

It remains unclear what action, if any, will result from the triple investigation.

However, Ms O'Malley's criminal investigation does have the power to initiate charges of up to involuntary manslaughter.

The City of Berkeley has already signalled that it will review planning and inspection regulations in light of the tragedy.

The fourth-storey balcony that collapsed was supported by eight timber beams.

These were entirely reliant for protection from water-related dry rot on special waterproof membranes wrapped around the joists.

The investigations are foc-used on whether this membrane was damaged during installation.

However, the CSLB is now demanding that rules be changed so that it is formally notified of all lawsuit settlements.

CSLB director David Fogt confirmed they were unaware of Segue's lawsuit settlements.

"We didn't know - that is a problem. Somebody has to let us know about it," he said.

"It is troubling. We had no prior complaints. There is no-thing in place that would notify us of a lawsuit.

"Any allegation of a contractor having poor workmanship or acting out of compliance of building code requirements is taken very seriously by the contractors' board."

confidentiality

The CSLB only became aware of the scale of Segue's settlements in the wake of the Berkeley tragedy.

Information on two of the settlements only became public because confidentiality clauses were not attached to the legal agreements, allowing the plaintiffs to confirm details.

The CSLB, which can suspend a builder's licence, said it would have been very interested in the settlement details because of the nature of the allegations involved.

"Any lawsuit that relates to allegedly defective work that results in the contractor paying damages would be of great interest to us," said Mr Fogt."

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