We take a lot for granted when we step out onto a deck or balcony two or three or more stories above the hard ground below. We assume that the architects and engineers and building contractors did their jobs competently. What could go wrong?
Just a year ago, in June 2015, thirteen young students learned exactly what could go wrong when the balcony of a Berkeley California apartment collapsed dropping the students fifty feet to the ground below, killing six and seriously injuring seven.
So often we have to sadly remind clients of the obvious limitations of the law in providing relief and remedies for the terrible and tragic injuries and damages that are inflicted on them and their loved ones as the result of the neglect or malice of others. Obviously, the six dead students cannot be returned to life. The law cannot cure any permanent injures suffered by the seven other students. The law can regulate. It can punish. It can compensate. It is not enough but that is all that the law can do.
Alameda California District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced in March, after an almost year long investigation, that no criminal charges would be brought against anyone associated with the construction or maintenance of the collapsed balcony. There will be no punishment, at least not in the criminal courts.
Of course civil cases for money damages have been filed against those thought to be responsible for the balcony’s collapse. To the extent that these suits are successful and to the limits of all of the culprits’ insurance policies, compensation may be ordered for the families of the six dead students and the others who were injured. The very idea of money compensation for the loss of a son or daughter is really quite absurd and the formulas and benchmarks that we lawyers use to value a lost life are contrivances. It is the best that we can do. Civil courts can’t put people in jail but, in addition to compensatory damages, they can award punitive damages. Punitive damages don’t have the bite of criminal prosecutions but, if a jury finds that the lack of care in installing or maintaining the balcony was malicious, that is if it was done with reckless disregard for the safety of the unlucky thirteen students who were killed and injured when the balcony collapsed, the responsible companies and individuals might have to pay huge sums of money for punitive damages that will not be covered by their insurers.
So there will be no punishment by the criminal justice system and there may be compensation damages and possibly punishment by way of punitive damages in the civil courts. A third repercussion for any guilty companies or individuals holding California contracting licenses is revocation or suspension of those licenses. On that front, the California State Contractors Board, which licenses and regulates contractors in California, has initiated actions against five companies.
Punitive damages, not covered by insurance, and suspended or revoked contracting licenses might be deathblows for the contracting companies that caused the deaths of six innocent young students. The families of the killed and injured may receive millions of dollars in compensatory damages. None of this will bring the students back. The law does what it can. It can do no more.
Stay tuned to The Legal Pulse for updates and call Ed McGill for a no charge consultation if you or someone you know has suffered as a result of the negligence or malice of another.
Content prepared by Edmond McGill. © Edmond McGill, 2016
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