Indiana Jones of Attorneys?

Lawyer Explores Disaster At Northridge Meadows

B.J. Palermo

Special to the Daily Journal
Daily Journal - August 1, 1994

Joel Bracamonte Castro is sprawled on a lawn chair, wearing jeans, a multi-pocket fishing vest, a metal helmet and a camera around his neck.

The civil lawyer has just explored and photographed the 30-inch-tall crawl space beneath a collapsed section of the ill-fated Northridge Meadows apartments.

His friends, he says, call him "the Indiana Jones of attorneys."

The other lawyers, engineers and workmen at the site wear helmets, too, confirming their sense that the earthquake-ravaged buildings could complete their collapse at any moment. But they have spent weeks documenting and collecting samples of the 163-unit complex for use in court.

"You come out here a little on edge," Castro says. "I have never done anything dangerous before. This stands apart. You play it by ear, take as many safety precautions as you can and hope for the best."

During an interview on a patio surrounded by rubble, the 46-year-old lawyer repeatedly does what he seems to enjoy most--explain in intricate detail the technicalities of construction.

"A split in the diaphragm of the ‘A' building caused it to collapse, and they failed to attach vertical shear walls with horizontal roofing...," he says.

He explains nail patterns and such terms as "dead loads," "live loads," and "rebar."

The jargon adds up to a consolidated court case, Cerone v. S.J. Four Properties, in which Castro and several other plaintiffs' attorneys will try to prove construction and design defects caused the three-story complex to collapse in the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake.

Sixteen people died and several others were injured when the second and third stories compacted the first-floor apartments. Injured tenants and families of the dead are suing owners Shashikant and Renuka Jogani, their management firm, the builder, architect and engineers.

As the lead attorney in the wrongful death case, Castro has drawn considerable attention from the local news media. His detailed interviews resemble rehearsals for the trial that is scheduled to start March 20 in Van Nuys.

One defense lawyer accused him of taking advantage of the press attention, Castro said: "I told him I'm a lawyer, I'm not a saint."

But the defense is most upset over Castro's announcement, early in the case, that design, building and structural defects caused the collapse of Northridge Meadows. They argue that only months of testing and research will determine the cause, which they insist was the force of nature of the quake.

Castro is "going through this building with a fine-tooth comb and attempting to find as many defects as he can," said Los Angeles attorney Robert M. Freedman, who represents the Joganis and their management firm. "We'll throw them all against the wall, but only a certain few of them will be relevant to the collapse."

Building defect litigation is nothing new for Castro. He cut his professional teeth on a series of such cases. There was the Meadowbrook development in Simi Valley, a two-story condominium complex that was damaged by a leaking roof. Castro won a settlement for the homeowners' association in 1983.

The next year he began representing the owners of townhouses in the 145-unit Eaton Crest development in Monterey Hills against the Wisconsin-based builder and the city of Los Angeles. The three-story complex had been built on a 100-foot-deep landfill created by the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"The city and the CRA had taken about five square miles of hillsides and cut and filled this place we calculated was bigger than the Pyramids," Castro said. "There was a canyon with an artesian well at the bottom. The fill was subsiding so fast nothing could be corrected until the fill was stabilized. The water in the swimming pool was at an angle, and the building was falling apart."

A jury in 1989 awarded his clients $10.9 million, plus attorney's fees and costs.

Century City attorney Gary M. Grossenbacher represented the bank that held the homeowners' mortgages, working with Castro during the nearly year-long trial.

"He's probably the most expert guy in the city in building defect litigation," said Grossenbacher, who is now a copyright attorney. "I was really impressed with his being able to take a case of that nature, with hundreds of thousands of documents, and become expert on all the issues."

Castro accomplished that partly by using a specially designed computer program, long before the technology was used by most lawyers. He and other attorneys believe he might have been the pioneer in data-base litigation.

Attorneys describe Castro's style in court as unflappable, deferential to judges and "folksy" before juries. His style "appeals to jurors' natural tendency to be sympathetic to homeowners. He uses the approach of mother and apple pie and home," said Century City attorney George Calkins, who opposed Castro in the Eaton Crest case.

"He is very effective in putting on evidence and getting into the issues," Calkins said. "But he is part of the tradition of taking advantage of natural human emotions, concern about home and hearth.

In 1989, Castro took on the homeowners' case against builder Nathan Shapell and the structural engineer over damages to the downtown Los Angeles Promenade, a mixed-use project. By 1992, settlements, a verdict and a subsequent appeal had netted the plaintiffs nearly $6 million.

"At that time there was not a lot of interest in the legal profession in what we call earthquake-resisting systems," Castro said. "Everyone was taking the position that unless the structure actually collapsed, you shouldn't be able to recover if you had deficient seismic systems.

The disaster at Northridge Meadows apartments changed the equation.

"Everything we've been saying for the last 10 years has been shown to be accurate here," Castro said. "So all of a sudden people who have been ignoring us are looking."

But before Castro had a chance to say "we told you so" after the earthquake, he represented homeowners in another project that faced no danger of collapse.

Last year he won a $6.2 million settlement for owners of townhouses and condominiums in Santa Monica's 144-unit Sea Colony because of structural flaws.

"I really haven't decided to specialize in structural defect cases," Castro said. "I'm somehow being selected to try these kinds of cases. I'm on a roll, with five in a row."

But the case he considers to be his most interesting preceded his flurry of construction cases. It involved Malibu Little League's 1981 battle to save its state-owned playing field from becoming a parking lot.

Castro won an injunction against the state and settled the case on the condition the Legislature would deed to the Little League the use of the bluffs across from Pepperdine University.

As a result, "they have the most expensive and beautiful Little League field on the West Coast," Castro said. "There's a little plaque for me on one of the diamonds."

The case was about fairness, he said, "the same thing we teach the kids on the baseball fields."

During his senior year, Castro was a clerk in the state attorney general's office, where he learned to write appellate briefs in criminal cases. He was able to use that training later, when he spent two years working for other lawyers writing criminal appeals, then civil appeals, and then doing transactional work.

The methodical study of Northridge Meadows apartments is being reviewed by the National Science Foundation, the Seismic Commission, scientific journals, and even National Geographic magazine.

"This kind of laboratory environment is going to provide a lot of data on how earthquakes can devastate a wood-frame structure, something we never thought possible before," he said. "The kind of investigation we're doing now can only be beneficial to everyone."

To some in the industry, however, Castro's crusade seems unrealistic.

"People are looking for the perfect widget. But if you built the perfect home nobody could afford to buy it," said Santa Monica attorney Craig A. McDonald, who specializes in transactional real estate law.

"I don't think you expect to buy a house and have the roof fall off or have your living room flood," McDonald said. "But how far do you go to protect the public in the event of all happenings? Can society take on that economic burden?"

Castro started taking on his own clients during the 1970s condominium boom. After friends who bought units described the grievances of their homeowners associations, Castro started advising them and then representing them in court.

His first such case was in 1979, when he represented owners of the 400-unit Annandale condo complex in Agoura who were beset by waterproofing and landscaping problems.

"Pretty soon I was representing only homeowners associations," Castro said. "Condominiums had a rough adolescence. We were depending on the body of law in New York and Florida, because there was none in California."

"Right now I'm very pleased with the practice, because we have received a lot of trade industry and scientific interest in the project," he said.

The enthusiastic Castro takes the challenge in stride.

"After your family, and maybe your job, what's the most important thing in your life?" he asks. "Your residence. So we are dealing with mother and apple pie."

In the Northridge Meadows case, he said, "we're trying to recover for some folks who have had a hard time, the worst loss known to man. We really believe in this stuff, or we wouldn't be doing it."