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No Charges Filed in Fatal Balcony Collapse

Thursday, March 31, 2016

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The contractors, building owner and property manager have escaped criminal prosecution in the apartment balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA, that killed six Irish citizens and seriously injured seven others last June, authorities said.

After a nine-month investigation, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday (March 29) that it would not file criminal charges in connection with the deadly collapse.

“There is insufficient evidence to bring criminal manslaughter charges against any one individual or company,” said District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, noting that “the responsibility for the failure likely extends to many of the parties involved in the construction or maintenance of the building.”

An assigned team of experienced prosecutors and investigators aided by experts in engineering, waterproofing and architecture participated in the investigation, which was launched after the City’s Planning and Development Department said it would not engage in forensic examination or laboratory tests of the balcony components.

The June 16, 2015, collapse occurred in the early morning hours at the Library Gardens apartment complex.

The 13 victims, mostly Irish students visiting on a summer-abroad program, were on the 5th floor balcony celebrating a birthday party when the structure gave way, sending them 40 feet to the street below.

Primary and Contributing Causes

The collapse was primarily caused by “extensive dry rot damage” to the wooden deck of the eight-year-old balcony, the prosecutors noted.  

Authorities determined that the collapse “was because water had been trapped (or ‘encapsulated’) in the balcony deck during construction.”

However, “[t]here appear to be many contributory causes of this encapsulation, including the types of material that were used (none of which are prohibited by building code) and the very wet weather Berkeley experienced during the months of construction.”

Difficult Decision

The Attorney’s Office stated that in order to file a manslaughter case based on criminal negligence, any defendant or defendants acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life, and that the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable. The burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.

Thus, O’Malley said the evidence wasn’t sufficient to bring such charges.

“This is not a decision that I came to lightly,” explained O’Malley. “It is the culmination of months of consultation with my team of attorneys. It follows extensive review of reports, both legal and factual, and numerous meetings with investigators and experts.”

Nancy O'Malley
Official Photo

District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said her office consulted with experts in engineering, waterproofing and architecture during its criminal investigation.

The Attorney’s Office further said it is working with state licensing officials and others to consider amending building codes and inspection oversight laws so that “tragedies like this never occur again.”

Irish Minister to Review

In response to the decision not to bring criminal charges, Charles Flanagan, Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said in a statement that his department would carefully review the details of the findings.

“While the District Attorney’s investigation did not find sufficient proof to take separate criminal proceedings, it has shone a vital light on the circumstances and factors that contributed directly and indirectly to the collapse of the balcony,” Flanagan said.

“This investigation is an important step in a process, the ultimate objective of which is to ensure that a tragedy such as Berkeley never occurs again.”

Ongoing Lawsuits

While the criminal investigation chapter has come to an end, the victims and their families are seeking relief against engineers, architects, owners, building managers, contractors and material suppliers in civil cases.

Michael A. Kelly, an attorney representing a majority of the victims involved told KQED News that the District Attorney’s decision didn’t come as a surprise in light of the high burden of proof needed in a criminal case.

He also said the outcome would not likely affect his clients’ ongoing efforts in Alameda County Superior Court.

Civil Allegations

There are reportedly 12 lawsuits stemming from the incident.

One of the complaints, filed in November 2015, alleges that contractors, including general contractor Segue Construction (Pleasanton, CA) and its subcontractors, left the wooden balcony structure open after it was framed in October 2005, exposing it to prolonged precipitation.

The balcony decking was not waterproofed until January 2006, the complaint alleges, after some 13 inches of rainfall.

The suit also alleges that building owners and managers were aware of mushroom growth on the surface of the apartment’s balcony and did nothing to correct the structural issues.

The suits seek unspecified damages.

Segue Construction did not immediately respond Wednesday (March 30) to a request for comment.

   

Tagged categories: Architecture; Building codes; Building design; Building envelope; Building materials; Laws and litigation; Multifamily; water damage; Waterproofing; Wood

Comment from Monica Chauviere, (3/31/2016, 11:37 AM)

I thought everyone knew that you don't just "waterproof" outdoor structural members made of wood. That wood must be "treated" for outdoor exposure. I'm certainly not an architect or a wood expert. But dry rot after 7 years tells me that did not happen. Treated wood for outdoor use (as all DIYers in my circles instinctively understand) is essential. I'm amazed that any building code would not require that.


Comment from Michael Quaranta, (4/5/2016, 5:42 PM)

Monica, it's a matter of the failure to apply particle physics and to build balconys like the Romans. The affect on the wood, I believe, has been missed by the parties in this review process. In the end there will be a serious revision to the "consensus developed" standards to bring the correct design criteria for these balcony project.


Comment from Joe Miller, (4/7/2016, 9:06 AM)

What would be the correct inspection procedure if one encounters a wooden balcony or any other structure made from wood to determine the composition of the wood and whether it was treated or untreated wood? Core it and send it to a lab? And if that is the correct sampling procedure how does one repair or fill the core hole? Most of the time we deal with concrete and a definitive set of procedures for coring and testing. We even have for example Half-Cell Potential Surveys for Rebar, Moisture Meter Test Kits, etc. Not so much for wood. What Organization should we refer to for this type of Technical information about wood. I am also assuming that the wood was plywood. Anybody that can please give out some guidance on this topic. Maybe the Roofing guys know about plywood. Thanks, Joe Miller/E: joe@direct2contractors.com.


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