Superior Court judge allows families of balcony collapse victims, survivors to pursue punitive damages

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Alvin Wu/File

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A U.S. Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the victims of last year’s Downtown Berkeley balcony collapse accident may press for punitive damages against the building’s owner, manager and construction company.

According to the court documents, Alameda County Superior Court judge Brad Seligman made a tentative ruling to deny three companies’ motions to strike punitive damages allegations from the plaintiffs’ complaints.

According to Victoria King, principal analyst at Alameda County Superior Court, a tentative ruling can later be challenged and argued by any party in a court case.

Last June, the balcony in question fell from the fourth floor of the Library Gardens apartment complex, killing six and wounding seven. The three companies who made motions — investment firm BlackRock Associates, construction firm Segue Construction and real estate management firm Greystar — are all affiliated with Library Gardens.

The plaintiffs — the seven surviving victims and all six families of dead victims of the accident — have filed 13 separate lawsuits that allege negligence on the part of the firms to heed crucial steps in maintaining the safety of the balcony. The lawsuits seek both punitive and exemplary damages, as well as compensation for the accident.

In March, three additional women who had rented the fourth-floor unit connected to the collapsed balcony sued the property owners, managers and subcontractors for “severe mental and emotional harm” when they witnessed the accident. The three also seek punitive damages in their lawsuit.

Seligman made the tentative ruling in the context of surviving victim Aoife Beary’s lawsuit against the companies. Beary, whose birthday party transpired in the apartment during the night of the incident, claims in her suit to have suffered “severe neurologic, orthopedic, cosmetic and internal injuries.”

In the ruling, Seligman agreed with the plaintiff’s case that an unstable fourth-floor balcony “obviously posed a potentially life-threatening risk to multiple tenants.” Seligman’s ruling further stipulated that the companies’ actions by law constituted an act of malice toward the plaintiffs, which entitles them to file for punitive damages, King said. According to the lawsuits, the balcony had, in the year prior to the accident, tilted noticeably away from the apartment when people stood on it.

UC Berkeley law school professor Mark Gergen said punitive damages can easily be equal to the amount of liability the defendants will have to pay, essentially doubling the amount of payment.

“We’re talking about people who have suffered horrible injuries,” Gergen said. “(Punitive damages) are not likely to be covered by liability insurance.”

The ruling came after the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office concluded its investigation on the collapse and declined to bring criminal charges against any party.

The case is currently ongoing.

Contact Jessie Qian at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessieq96.