Editorials

Balcony collapse points to loophole in law

The rotted wood beams that held a collapsed balcony in Berkeley jut out from the apartment building on Kittredge Street. Six died and seven were seriously injured when the balcony collapsed during a birthday party June 16.
The rotted wood beams that held a collapsed balcony in Berkeley jut out from the apartment building on Kittredge Street. Six died and seven were seriously injured when the balcony collapsed during a birthday party June 16. TNS

Almost from the start, it was clear what had caused last month’s fatal collapse of an apartment balcony in Berkeley. It was right there in the news photographs.

Wood rot. Somehow, water had seeped into the support beams and disintegrated them in the scant eight years since the building’s completion. It was only a matter of time until the balcony sheared off.

Less apparent were the red flags that might have prompted closer inspections, had state and local authorities only had better information.

The Pleasanton construction company that built the Library Gardens complex near the UC Berkeley campus has been sued repeatedly over the past decade by litigants claiming shoddy work, according to court records. In fact, according to the Contractors State License Board, which, with the help of the attorney general’s office, has been scouring court documents for weeks now, the firm, Segue Construction, has paid out more than $22 million in the past three years alone just to settle suits involving balconies with water damage.

“Had we known about the suits and the underlying reasons for them, we would have absolutely taken action,” the Contractors State License Board’s chief of enforcement, David Fogt, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member this week.

The repeated problems would surely have triggered an investigation into suspending or revoking their contractor’s license, he said, adding that even a citation for a single violation would have gone on Segue’s record to alert city building officials.

But because Segue settled out of court, and because a loophole in state law allows it, the board, which oversees construction licensing in California, was unaware of the company’s history of construction defect lawsuits until after the June 16 tragedy.

This needs to be fixed. The only question is whether state lawmakers will do right by the victims – and by California consumers – or capitulate to the powerful building industry.

There’s no good reason why regulators should be kept out of the loop on contractors’ settlement records. Other professionals are required to notify state licensing bodies when they settle lawsuits stemming from a work-related error.

Regulators don’t always make that data public – a shortcoming in the law, we think – but at least the agencies with the power to, say, yank a bad actor’s license can see which physicians or engineers or architects are having problems.

With contractors, that’s not the case. Unless a lawsuit goes to trial and ends in a judgment, the Contractors State License Board might remain in the dark forever. Builders claim they need the special secrecy to deter frivolous “shakedown” lawsuits. But doctors get sued, too, and we make them share their legal histories with the state medical board.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo – a contractor – has introduced legislation to improve construction industry disclosure. Senate Bill 465 would require the state to be notified when contractors are convicted of a felony or when they settle a significant claim having to do with negligence, fraud, incompetence or other serious professional wrongdoing.

Hill has tried before, without luck, to bring reporting standards in his field into line with other professions. SB 465 is two days old and already the California Building Industry Association and the Construction Employers Association have come out against it.

Lawmakers should care less about what builders’ lobbyists think and more about the six young people who died in that collapse, and the seven who were seriously injured. Just on Friday, another young man was killed when an apartment stairwell collapsed in Folsom.

Demanding the transparency to prevent these kinds of accidents from recurring is the least the Legislature can do.

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