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Friday 9 December 2016

Insult to victims as companies look to blame Irish students for Berkeley balcony horror

A crew work on the remaining wood of the apartment balcony that collapsed in Berkeley
A crew work on the remaining wood of the apartment balcony that collapsed in Berkeley
Olivia Burke (21) who died in the Berkeley balcony tragedy
Eimear Walsh (21) who died in the Berkeley balcony tragedy
Nick Schuster who died in the balcony fall in Berkeley
Lorcan Miller, one of six students killed in a balcony collapse in the US
Eoghan Culligan (21) who died in the Berkeley balcony tragedy
Ashley Donohoe

Several companies being sued over the Berkeley balcony collapse have sought to shift blame for the tragedy onto the victims.

At least four firms implicated in the case have claimed the young Irish students involved may bear some responsibility themselves.

Allegations have been made that their "carelessness and negligence" may have been a contributory factor in the balcony giving way.

The claims, made in court filings over the past fortnight, will inevitably cause further heartache for survivors and relatives of the dead.

Survivors

Families and survivors are currently preparing for a church service in the Californian city later this week to mark the first anniversary of the disaster.

Five Irish J1 students and a young Irish-American woman died when the fourth-floor balcony of the Library Gardens building in downtown Berkeley gave way during a 21st birthday celebration in the early hours of June 16 last year.

Seven other J1 students were seriously hurt, in many cases suffering life-changing injuries.

Last November, survivors and relatives of the dead initiated multi-million dollar lawsuits against 32 companies involved in the ownership, management and construction of the building.

The suits claim various parties were negligent as action was not taken to fix the balcony, despite clear signs of rot.

Most of the defendants have filed defences; in some cases blaming other defendants for the tragedy.

However, four companies have now suggested that the students may have been in some way partly responsible.

They include two contracting firms, R Brothers Waterproofing and North State Plastering, who face losing their licences as a result of a watchdog investigation.

They, along with a third firm, roofing consultants IRC Technologies, have filed near- identical papers.

Among the claims made are that the plaintiffs may have in some way altered the balcony or material in it and may have improperly used or maintained the balcony.

They also claim the plaintiffs were barred from recovering damages "due to having failed or neglected to use reasonable care". The allegations are set to be hotly contested by lawyers for the survivors and families of the dead.

A fourth company involved in the construction of the building, Abacus Project Management, claims the students knew or ought to have known about the condition of the balcony and the risks and hazards of using it.

It claimed the condition of the balcony was "open and obvious" and that "active negligence bars the rights of plaintiffs to recover any damages".

Abacus and several other defendants have also claimed they cannot mount a fair defence because the balcony was not preserved after the collapse.

Five Irish students - Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21 - died in the tragedy, as did Ms Burke's Irish-American cousin, Ashley Donohoe (22).

Injuries

Another seven Irish students - Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters - suffered serious injuries in the fall.

The lawsuits are proceeding at a court in neighbouring Oakland after the local district attorney decided there was "insufficient evidence" to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company.

While criminal charges would have had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, there is a lower burden of proof in civil cases.

The lawsuits are currently in the middle of a lengthy pre-trial phase. The next preliminary hearing is unlikely to take place until August, by which stage it may be known when the cases will go to trial.

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