Courting Disaster

Construction defect suits boom in the wake of the L.A. quake

Michael Moreau
California Lawyer - May 1994

Courting Disaster

Santa Monica attorney Joel B. Castro knows that paper shredding isn't the only way to destroy evidence. So this specialist in construction law obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent the owners of Northridge Meadows from tearing down the buildings.

Castro wanted the complex left the way it was on January 17, the day of the Northridge quake--in shambles, with views through what used to be walls into rooms where 16 people died. He represents families of some of the people who were killed there. He fears that in the rush to clear away rubble, crucial evidence about possible structural defects will also be swept away.

When the earth opened up in L.A., so did construction defect litigation. Castro is one of legions of attorneys throughout the Southland assessing the aftermath of the quake.

Castro is suing the partnership that owns the Meadows, plus the original developer, architect, structural engineer, and general contractor for seismic and construction defects. Castro says the buildings didn't meet the minimum safety standards required by code. The apartment walls, he says, "did not even have the required plywood in them. Those stucco walls were carrying the entire load."

"The big cost item is physical damage to the structure," says Allen Goldstein, executive director of the Structural Engineers Association of California. "It may be standing, but it may not be functional."

David G. Esptein looks at construction defects as a product safety issue. He's an Irvine attorney with Kasdan, Simonds, Peterson, McIntyre, Epstein & Martin who handles these cases. "Under California law, a residence is a product like a TV or a microwave. With mass-produced manufactured houses, all y ou have to prove is the defect. This is case law." Kriegler v Eichler Homes, Inc. (1969) 269 CA2d 224; Del Mar Beach Club Owners Ass'n v Imperial Contracting Co. (1981) 123 CA3d 898.

In the boom period of the 1980's, Epstein says, "contractors cared more about speed than quality." In much of the construction, the plywood required under various building codes has been missing. In many instances, Epstein says, more fragile gypsum board was substituted for plywood.

For those who don't own their homes, tenant-landlord disputes are expected to raise questions concerning lease obligations, reasonable time limits on making repairs, and fair rent increases in light of repair costs. Ronald I. Silverman, chair of the Los Angeles County Bar Association's Real Property Section Executive Committee, says his firm (Cox Castle & Nicholson of Century City) is in the middle of numerous cases involving condominium and leasing issues, insurance coverage, and construction defects. "The issues that immediately sprang up," he says, "involved tenants who wanted to get out of leases or stop paying."

In Santa Monica, more than 1,900 rental units were declared uninhabitable, displacing more than 3,000 people. Mary Ann Yurkonis, administrator of the Santa Monica Rent Board, says that her agency will require landlords to submit rent increase requests through an administrative petition process before or after repairing apartments shut down by the quake.