California licensing panel to probe deadly balcony collapse that killed six

People placing candles at a memorial for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse.
People placing candles at a memorial for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO, June 25 (Reuters) - A California licensing panel said on Thursday it would investigate a construction firm involved in building the Berkeley apartment balcony that collapsed last week, killing six people and injuring seven others.

A team of industry experts selected by the Contractors State Licence Board will examine the balcony built by Segue Construction Inc for workmanship and perform other forensic analysis, said agency spokesman Rick Lopes.

The process could result in the revocation of the company's license to operate in the state, he said. The panel would also examine the builder's previous work to determine past performance, Mr Lopes said.

In one case the panel will review, Segue paid US$3.4 million (S$4.6 million) to settle claims brought by a homeowners association of construction defects at another Bay Area apartment complex in 2013.

The claims alleged that improperly sealed balconies became quickly subject to water intrusion, dry rot and instability.

Settling the claims meant the builder was not required to report the matter to the board, as it would be in the case of an adverse court judgment, Mr Lopes said. "We were concerned to learn there may have been out of court settlements with gag orders," Mr Lopes told Reuters. "But those settlements don't preclude the board's ability to investigate."

A representative for Segue was not available for comment on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley told reporters that investigators would begin to assess whether criminal negligence led to the fatal collapse.

Ms O'Malley said the remains of the apartment balcony and another deck from that building where inspectors have noticed evidence of dry rot will be part of the evidence. Criminal or civil actions could follow, she said.

"The negligence that we will be evaluating must be aggravated, it must be culpable, it must be gross, or reckless," Ms O'Malley said, adding that someone deemed criminally negligent can be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

The authorities have said 13 people attending a birthday party had crowded onto the balcony when it ripped away from the exterior wall of the apartment house and pitched over 90 degrees, spilling everyone 12m onto the street below last Tuesday.

Three men and three women - five visiting college students from Ireland and one American friend who was with them - were killed in the accident. Seven other people were hospitalised.