Berkeley balcony collapse: Contractor used inferior wood and owner ignored signs of rot, including mushrooms sprouting from the surface, lawsuits allege

A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed Tuesday, killing six. Photo: Emily Dugdale
The balcony at Library Gardens that collapsed June 16, killing six and injuring seven. Lawsuits were filed against the owners, managers, contractors, subcontractors and others Thursday. Photo: Emily Dugdale

The contractor for Library Gardens used inferior wood to construct the balcony that collapsed June 16, and allowed it to be saturated by rain before enclosing it, according to 12 lawsuits filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Thursday by families of those killed in the disaster as well as those injured.

The wood in the fifth-floor balcony at 2020 Kittredge St. started to rot so quickly after its 2005 construction that mushrooms later sprouted on the surface, according to the lawsuit. “Fungal bloom and biologic growth” appeared on the balcony’s exterior, as well as the balcony a floor below.

Most significantly, the balcony began to tilt downward in 2014, a sure sign that its joists had been compromised, according to the lawsuit.

Despite all those red flags, the owner and property manager of Library Gardens did not take any steps to examine the balcony’s structure and determine if it was safe, according to the lawsuits. Instead, they allowed apartment #405 to be rented out regularly until the June collapse, which killed six young people and seriously injured seven others, most of them Irish citizens who had come to the U.S. to work for the summer. They were “a group of well-educated, hard-working, healthy and happy young men and women [who] gathered to mark their friendship and celebrate a 21st birthday. Most had grown up in Dublin and were attending top-tier Irish universities,” the lawsuits read.


Park mass photo irish consulate
A mass held in Berkeley to commemorate those killed and injured in the balcony collapse. Photo: Irish Consulate

The San Francisco law firm of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger filed the 12 lawsuits against 35 defendants. They include BlackRock, the owner of Library Gardens, and its many subsidiaries, GreyStar Real Estate Partners, which managed the apartment complex on Kittredge Street, Segue Construction, the general contractor, R. Brothers Waterproofing, TCA Architects, W.R. Grace and company, and numerous other companies.

The lawsuits also named John DeClerq as an individual defendant. DeClerq was one of the developers of Library Gardens. He is also a former co-director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

The balcony collapse killed Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park, who held dual American-Irish citizenship; and Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years old and from Ireland. It also injured Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters.

Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger is representing the 12 Irish citizens who were killed or injured. Donahoe, the Irish-American, is represented by another law firm which is expected to file a lawsuit shortly.

Read complete coverage related to the balcony collapse.


Library Gardens was only 8 years old when the balcony collapsed, leading many to wonder how such a new building could have such a catastrophic structural failure. The city of Berkeley released a report that identified dry rot as the only contributing factor to the structural failure of the balcony, but the city said determining the reason for that failure was beyond the scope of its analysis.

The lawsuit claims to have identified the reason.

According to the lawsuit, the contractor used vertically oriented strand wood (OSB) rather than plywood in the balcony’s construction, perhaps as a cost-saving measure. OSB is inferior to plywood because it is less water resistant, according to the lawsuit.

“The approved design plans for the balcony called for plywood to be installed on top of the cantilevered wooden joists during the framing of the balcony floor,” according to the lawsuit. “These defendants, however, purposely disregarded the plan’s specifications and failed to install plywood, opting instead to install three layers of vertically oriented strand wood (OSB). OSB is less expensive than plywood. These defendants installed OSB knowing that OSB was more susceptible to water damage, water infiltration and early deterioration and rot than the plywood specified in the design plans.”

What appears to be rotting wood can be seen on the remains of the balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Photo: David Yee
What appears to be rotting wood can be seen on the remains of the balcony that collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Photo: David Yee

The defendants didn’t immediately waterproof the balcony after it was built in late 2005 and allowed it to become saturated with rainwater, weakening it, according to the lawsuits.


“During this period Berkeley was subject to extensive rainfall. From Nov 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2005 there were 21 days of precipitation in Berkeley and more than 13 inches of total rainfall. During this two-month period, the balcony’s unprotected OSB framing became saturated with rain and moisture.”

The balcony was not enclosed with stucco until January 2006 and by this time it was saturated with water and was “therefore structurally unsound and dangerous,” according to the lawsuits. In addition, the contractor did not include sufficient drainage and actually installed smaller and fewer drainage areas than called for in the plans.

Tenants living in apartment #405 did notice and report signs of water damage, according to the lawsuits. From approximately October 2008 to the summer of 2010 tenants “observed large mushrooms growing from multiple locations on the surface of the apartment’s balcony. These mushrooms were the fruiting body of the moisture induced rot that was rapidly occurring to the wooden joists, which supported the balcony.” This was … “an unambiguous red flag warning that the wooden joists were rotting and that the balcony was at great risk for collapse.”

By using substandard construction methods and failing to properly inspect and repair the balcony, the defendants acted in a “reckless, despicable and malicious” manner, according to the lawsuits. They didn’t correct the deficiencies “because it would have been costly, difficult, embarrassing and inconvenient to repair and rebuild the balcony.”

No monetary damages were specified in the lawsuits.

The Alameda County district attorney’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the balcony collapse.

Irish President Michael Higgins and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates each planted an arbutus tree in Civic Center Park to recall the balcony collapse victims. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Irish President Michael Higgins and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates each planted an arbutus tree in Civic Center Park to recall the balcony collapse victims. Photo: Emilie Raguso

In the wake of the disaster, Berkeley approved several new laws to improve building safety. The president of Ireland visited Berkeley recently to plant trees in memory of those who died in the collapse and to thank the first responders who assisted in the rescue efforts.

Related:
Irish president visits Berkeley to give thanks (10.28.15)
Op-ed: Let’s say ‘yes’ to a vibrant downtown Berkeley (07.10.15)
Berkeley council to address balcony safety after collapse (07.07.15)
Berkeley balcony survivor is making ‘great progress’ (07.02.15)
Berkeley balcony passed inspection before collapse (07.01.15)
Library Gardens builder seeks to stop DA from examining balcony without it being present (06.30.15)
Irish consul general: J-1 visa student community a source of ‘great pride’ (06.26.15)
DA launches criminal investigation into balcony collapse (06.25.15)
‘Severely dry rotted’ timber found after balcony collapse; city plans to stiffen safety rules (06.23.15)
Church services held for balcony collapse victims (06.20.15)
Protesters demand halt on new construction in Berkeley (06.19.15)
No ‘smoking gun’ in Berkeley balcony design (06.19.15)
As students recover in hospitals, support grows for survivors, victims of balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Coroner releases autopsy results on balcony victims; first responders sought help for stress (06.18.15)
City posts documents from balcony collapse property (06.18.15)
People gather to remember victims of Berkeley balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Firm that built Berkeley complex has been fined, sued (06.18.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
As Berkeley orders removal of second balcony, questions over quality of construction (06.17.15)
Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $5 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.