An investigation has been under way into the balcony collapse that occurred in a Berkeley, California apartment building during the early hours of Tuesday, June 16, 2015. The collapse caused the deaths of six people and injured seven more. Of those killed, five were Irish nationals, and one was a woman from Rohnert Park, California who held dual citizenship with the U.S. and Ireland. The accident occurred during a party for a visiting Ireland student celebrating his 21st birthday.
According to experts who viewed the damage to the balcony, the balcony collapsed because rainwater had seeped through the wood structure of the balcony, resulting in dry rot. This process can occur in just a few years. The five-story complex, called the Library Gardens, consists of four residential floors above a retail level, and was only built in 2007.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates stated that the balcony was not structurally sound to support the people who were standing on it. Under city and state codes, the balconies are expected to hold a minimum of 60 pounds per square foot. According to city officials, the dimensions of the balcony that collapsed were 8 feet 10 inches long and 4 feet 5 inches wide. Therefore, it should have had the capacity to hold approximately 2,100 pounds. At the time of the collapse, 13 people were standing on the balcony.
Due to this tragic accident, the city of Berkeley may have to strengthen its building codes in order to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future. Segue Construction is a firm that may not be meeting presenting codes. It appears that this is not the first time Segue has allowed “water penetration” problems in its building constructions. Court filings reveal that Segue Construction, the company that built Liberty Gardens, paid $3 million in 2014 in settlement of a lawsuit regarding “water penetration” problems on several balconies in an apartment complex in San Jose.
In a similar case in 2013, Segue paid $3.5 million in settlement of a case filed by the owners of a condominium complex with 109 units that had been constructed in 2010 in Millbrae on El Camino Real. According to Thomas Miller, the plaintiffs’ attorney, the balconies collapsed because of the same reasons. Water seeped into the structural wood of the balconies, causing dry rot. Thirty-six balconies were determined to be unsafe, and are being re-constructed.
Preventing More Injuries
As Mayor Bates suggests, the laws controlling balconies are not sufficiently stringent. The regulations governing balconies in California are based on standards established by the International Code Council, which offers the bare minimum level needed to conform to the standards of public safety and occupancy.
As a preventive measure, it would be best to strengthen the building codes in the city of Berkeley, just as the city of Chicago did over 10 years ago after a porch collapsed, killing 13 people, and injuring several others. The accident took place in June 2003, at a home in the stylish Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago with 75 guests. Not long after midnight, a back porch located on the third floor collapsed and fell into the basement. The litigation in that case just concluded in June 2013 with a settlement of $16.6 million. An architect determined that the porch had not been constructed in accordance with city code. Following this tragic accident, the city of Chicago strengthened its building code as well as its enforcement procedures.
It would certainly be proactive if all cities nationwide didn’t wait for such a tragic accident to occur but would try to ascertain whether all of their buildings were in compliance with the city code, and determine whether their building codes need to be stronger.
Authored by Roxanne Minott, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law