Evidence of Collapse Focus of Legal Fight

Ann W. O’Neill and Kurt Pitzer
Special to The Times

The owner of the Northridge Meadows apartments, where 16 people died in the Jan. 17 earthquake, has asked a judge to keep secret the results of a private investigation into how and why the building collapsed.

Lawyers for complex owner Shashikant Jogani and relatives of two women crushed in their first-floor apartments will argue Friday morning in a Van Nuys courtroom whether potential evidence of construction defects should become public.

Jogani’s attorney, Robert M. Freeman, requested a court order preventing the release of photographs and videotapes of the collapsed complex while a lawsuit works it way through the courts. He also requested a gag order preventing the families’ lawyer, Joel B. Castro, from discussing the findings of the investigation.

In an interview Wednesday, Castro asserted that a compelling public interest is at stake. "I don’t want this thing buried. I want this thing out while people are revising the codes." Castro said.

The state Seismic Safety Commission as well as the city’s Building and Safety Code Committee and the Los Angeles police and fire departments have asked Castro to release results of the investigation, according to court records.

The legal maneuvering arose out of the first known quake-related lawsuit. Relatives of quake victims Anna Cerone and Bea Reskin have accused the building’s owner, architect and builder of negligence in a Feb. 15 wrongful death lawsuit and are seeking unspecified damages.

Last week, engineers and other construction experts hired by both parties combed the rubble of Northridge Meadows for three days, searching for clues to explain why the three-story building pancaked into its first floor. They also photographed and videotaped the site, which has been preserved under a previous court order barring demolition.

Castro said his investigators have found construction defects, but he declined to discuss specifics before the hearing Friday. In court papers, however, Castro said the site could serve as a seismic safety "test lab" as various public agencies study the adequacy of current building codes and inspection methods.

Freeman, the attorney for the owner, contends that premature disclosure of the findings--gathered by the lawyer suing his client--would irreparable harm Jogani’s reputation and create a media circus.

In an interview, Freeman said that Jogani is not opposed to releasing results to public agencies as long as they are not fed to the media. "We want to help. We are not trying to hide anything."

Freeman said he feared that Castro could use the findings to enlist more clients against Jogani and the other defendants. And he said the television media could "exploit" the videotape.

"What we are dealing with is a scene of death and destruction," Freeman said. "We allowed him to inspect and photograph the scene, but our understanding was it would be used for the lawsuit." He added that he feared media attention could prejudice prospective jurors.

Since the families filed suit, the case has generated little notice. On March 1, Castro sought a court order preventing destruction of what he described as "crucial evidence" during demolition. Whether Jogani planned to quickly demolish the apartments is just one of many points of dispute in the case.

Both sides agreed to a "controlled demolition," removing sections of the building piece by piece while engineers investigate the buried first floor. The careful dismantling of the building also will survivors and relatives of the dead time to retrieve belongings.

The demolition, estimated to cost $500,000, has not been scheduled. According to court records, Jogani said he has no funds for the costly job, and city officials have negotiated for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition to Shashikant and Renuka Jogani, the owners, the suit names builders Brian L. Heller and Burton S. Ury, architect Morris Brown and structural engineer Woodward Tom.

Freeman said his client is not responsible for the tragedy, which he called an "act of God."

In the weeks following the quake, engineers and city Building and Safety officials have said plywood-reinforced shear walls could have helped the building withstand the tremors. But building codes in force at the time the building plans were approved did not require them.

Property records show that Northridge Meadows was built in 1972 by Heller Construction. Jogani bought the building from Brian Heller in 1981.