Demolition of Northridge Meadows Raises Legal Issues

B.J. Palermo
Daily Journal - May 3, 1994

The dissection of the Northridge Meadows apartments began Monday with a press conference in which lawyers from all sides differed sharply over basic facts in the wrongful death case.

As scores of engineers examined the roof of the collapsed 163-unit complex, attorneys for the owners, the builder and family members of the tenants killed in the Jan. 17 earthquake offered assembled new reporters diverse accounts of what the evidence has shown so far.

Plaintiffs' attorneys, who have been examining the Reseda Boulevard complex for weeks, contend they have found evidence the construction met neither the 1970 building code nor the builders own plans.

But Jon Mower, an attorney for builder Brian Heller, insisted the 1971 construction did meet the code and disputed the existence of deficiencies described by lead plaintiffs' attorney Joel B. Castro.

My experts have not found the things Mr. Castro is talking about," Mower said.

It's good to remember that when one goes through a building with a fine-toothed comb, it is very likely some irregularities will be found. The question is whether the building was designed and built according to the best standards available at the time."

The lawyers are trying to answer that question with what they call a "controlled demolition," removing sections of the structure to study and document for trial in Van Nuys. The effort, expected to take a week to 10 days, will preserve evidence before city wrecking crews complete the demolition later this month.

As attorneys held their press conference, former tenants and survivors of the dead stood nearby, hoping to gain access to the unstable, fenced and guarded Northridge Meadows. Some forced to pay $350 to have an experts remove their belongings from the ruined apartments.

"When I told them I had lots of books, they said that would be another $125 an hour. Where do they think we're getting all this money?" complained 75-year-old Josephine Maida, who lived in Apartment 307.

Edith Elzenberger said she had to pay $600 to two demolition experts to remove her possessions from Apartment 301.

The case against owners Shashikant and Renuka Jogani, Heller Construction Co., the architect and two engineers has been consolidated, with eight plaintiffs' lawyers representing the survivors and injured tenants.

A major area of disagreement is whether the controlled demolition will reconcile any of the lawyers' differences.

"I would caution against expecting any quick or dirty answers as to why this building failed or collapsed. It could very well be that if this building was constructed perfectly, it still would have collapsed," said E. Allen Tharpe, attorney for the Joganis and their management firm.

"If you put the same microscope on any building in this area" you would find deficiencies, he said. "Our goal is not to determine whether the building is flawless but whether those flaws contributed to the collapse."

Defense attorneys also content the quake was strongest in the neighborhood of Northridge Meadows, citing partial collapses in some nearby structures.

Metal poles in parking bays beneath the three-story complex buckled when the buildings shifted during the magnitude 6.8 quake. The first-floor units were compacted beneath the upper stories, killing 16 tenants and injuring several others.

While defense lawyers insist it will take months to document and analyze the samples gathered this week, Castro said the building's failures already were becoming apparent Monday.

It really wasn't an act of God but an act of negligence," he said. "You're going to see a combination of serious construction defects and design deficiencies."

The examination of 30 percent of the complex already has revealed 10 major structural failures, including the lack of connections between floors, walls and roofs and the absence of horizontal shear walls that, even in 1970, were required to resist quakes, Castro said.

However, Dave Keim, principal inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, said it is too soon to draw conclusions.

"It's extremely premature to make any kind of conclusive statements about why this building failed," Keim said in an interview. "There could be a whole host of reasons for this building's lack of performance. And I don't know that they have found any building defects yet.

Tharpe, who has filed a cross-complaint against the builder and several subcontractors on behalf of the owners, said the city's approval of the plans and inspections reassured the Joganis when they purchased the property in 1981.

We're discovering that we can't depend on the inspection of these buildings as a guarantee that they are safe and, certainly, that they are flawless," he said.

Although state law protects cities against liability for building defects, it holds apartment owners responsible for deaths and injuries caused by those flaws.

"It this had happened in almost any other state, or if this had been a hospital or strip mall or other commercial property, my clients would not be facing liability," Tharpe said. "This is bad law, not bad people. We need to analyze whether that law needs to be changed."