The Legal Cleanup

Northridge Meadows Suits Move Steadily Ahead
B.J. Palermo

Earthquakes don't frighten Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin.

But his tour of the quake-ravaged Northridge Meadows apartments left a lasting impression.

Shoes of all sizes still littered the courtyard of the 163-unit complex. Missing walls bared the furniture and personal effects abandoned by tenants when the magnitude 6.8 Northridge earthquake struck on Jan. 17.

The letters "DB" scrawled outside apartments were a grim reminder than 16 dead bodies were pulled from the rubble after most of the structures in the huge apartment complex collapsed.

"The descriptions I heard and what I had seen in photos and on the television news did not make me as aware of the extent of the damage," MacLaughlin said in an interview. "When you see everybody's personal possessions still in various states of disarray in each of those apartments and realize what occurred at 4:30 in the morning in darkness, it is very moving."

The judge had visited what one lawyer calls "the biggest piece of evidence ever" in a wrongful death and personal injury case. It is both the symbol of the quake and the subject of what is expected to be precedent-setting litigation.

"A case like this cries out for immediate justice," said plaintiffs' lawyer Jeffrey Behar. The Long Beach attorney represents the son and daughter of 48-year-old Karol Runnings, the safety coordinator for an insurance company who was killed in Apartment 108.

"I think the public will be interested in the case and will be served by the outcome," Behar said. "if the jury agrees with the plaintiffs that the structure contained deficiencies, that may result in a revision of the current codes to make them more in tune with the fact that we in Southern California live in a very volatile area that is subject to earthquakes."

MacLaughlin has been assigned all matters arising from deaths and injuries at the 22-year-old complex on Reseda Boulevard. The still undetermined number of claims are to be consolidated into one complicated case: Cerone v. S.J. Four Partnership.

On Feb. 15, lead plaintiffs' attorney Joel B. Castro filed the first claim, that of William Cerone, whose mother, Angeline, was killed in Apartment 103. The named defendants include principal owners Shashikant and Renuka Jogani and their partners: Heller Construction Co. of Westlake Village, architect Morrison Brown and two structural engineers.

The half-dozen court appearances so far have taken place in a trailer in Van Nuys, where the San Fernando judge has been sitting since his courthouse was destroyed in the quake. Rebuilding the San Fernando courthouse is expected to take a year and a half, the same period MacLaughlin predicts it will take to bring the Northridge Meadows case to trial.

Although survivors of the dead and a few of the injured have filed claims, the judge wants to wait for the one-year statute of limitations to elapse to give all the injured a chance to be included in the lawsuit.

The proceedings could begin much sooner, however, MacLaughlin said the case of an elderly plaintiff with a health problem could be expedited if an attorney makes such a motion. Or the judge might decide to try the liability issue before the damage phase. One or two lead plaintiffs could be chosen to proceed to trial first, with the resolution affecting all the other cases, MacLaughlin said.

Regardless of the time schedule in court, the seven attorneys for the plaintiffs are on a fast track to preserve the evidence before Northridge Meadows is razed by city builders.

To that end, the lawyers and their experts will start conducting their own postmortem on May 2. In their "controlled demolition," parts of the collapsed buildings will be disassembled and samples saved, documented, tested and stored for use in court.

The lawyers contend the evidence will show that the builder not only failed to meet the seismic safety requirements imposed after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake but violated the 1970 uniform building code and the plans for Northridge Meadows that were approved by the city.

For weeks, plaintiffs' attorneys and their experts have been photographing, videotaping, inspecting and measuring the shear walls, dry walls, floor connections, flanges and nail patterns of the complex. They enter the property wearing hard hats, with the consent of the owners' lawyers and after signing waivers of liability for their safety.

Northridge Meadows has become "the most documented building in the history of the universe. There are pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures," said Los Angeles attorney Robert M. Freedman, of Tharpe & Howell, who is managing the defense of the principal owners. Senior partner E.A. Tharpe will supervise and try the case for the firm.

The Joganis, native of India, were featured in a Forbes magazine article in 1990 as the heads of a $375 million real estate empire that included about 6,500 apartment units in Southern California. Forbes described the holdings as "basic, middleclass shelter" on which the Joganis obtained huge mortgages to invest in more property.

Although the couple did not buy Northridge Meadows until 1981, about 10 years after it was built, California law holds owners liable for deaths and injuries caused by the buildings defects, whether or not they knew of those flaws.

On April 15, the Joganis filed a cross-complaint against the builder and about 20 subcontractors. The critical issue is whether building defects caused each of the three-storied structures to shift several feet, bend supporting poles in the parking garages beneath the first floor, and collapse the second floor to ground level.

Defense attorney Freedman insists the cause was simply the quake. "Did alleged inconsistencies in the building cause it to fail, or did a 6.8 earthquake cause it to fail?" he asked. "It was standing before the earthquake."

He describes the Joganis as "innocent bystanders" who were hit hard by the loss of Northridge Meadows, assessed at about $7 million. The complex was insured only for liability, not quake damage.

The Joganis "would like to see this resolved as soon as possible," Freedman said. "But they also have resolved not to start paying out money until somebody establishes there was something wrong."

Los Angeles attorney William J. Downey sees the owners as more culpable.

His law firm, Kananack, Murgatroyd, Baum & Hedlund, specializes in mass disaster litigation and represents the families of four of the tenants who were killed.

"Large property owners go in and buy up huge amounts of the city's infrastructure, mortgage them to the hilt, take money out and put nothing into them," Downey said. "I suspect almost any building can be brought up to code."

Plaintiffs' lawyers contend the complex feel short of the builder's plans on several counts: Joist hangers connecting floors to walls were inadequate, there were insufficient shear walls to prevent lateral movement during a quake, the parking garages exceeded the allowable footage, and the metal poles supporting the first floor apartments were too flimsy.

"There were about 10 major problems in this structure," said Castro, whose Santa Monica law firm represents plaintiffs in several construction defect cases stemming from recent earthquakes.

"It's considered extraordinary that a wood-frame structure would collapse. The entire construction and legal communities will be watching this case so we can make sure there was something wrong with this building and continue to believe wood-frame structures are the safest place to be in an earthquake."

Because the approved plans and inspection reports for the complex were discarded by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, attorneys have been working from drawings supplied by the builder. And no one is sure if those were the final plans. Attorneys for the owners have had crews drilling into the first floor of Northridge Meadows to retrieve documents from a storage room where they also hope to find the final building plans.

"I don't care about the plans," Castro, who represents the survivors of eight of the tenants killed. "Our evidence shows the building did not meet the existing 1970 code, and we have examined only about 30 percent of Northridge Meadows."

Defense lawyers insist the building met the code and say builder typically deviate from their plans.

"You would be hard pressed to find a building in strict compliance with the plans," said Irvine attorney Keith D. Koeller. His firm, Mower, Koeller, Nebeker & Carlson, represents Heller Construction.

Plaintiffs' claims that the builder cut corners "doesn't say much to me until you can tell me how that related to the collapse of the building," Koeller said. "And they're assuming these are final plans."

If there were a culprit in the collapse of Northridge Meadows, it was the building code at the time, he said.

"The focus, from what we can tell, is the buildings failed in the direction of the shear walls. And those were the type of walls allowed by the code."

Freedman, attorney for the Joganis and their management firm, argues the code also allowed the type of parking spaces beneath the complex that typified low-rent apartments in the west San Fernando Valley in the 1960s and early 1970s.

"The only thing holding the tuck-under parking area up were metal poles that were not designed for lateral support," he said. "When the ground shakes the building tilts, and once it starts going it's history."

Attorneys for both sides have been studying the toll on surrounding structures, many of which suffered considerable damage in the quake.

"You see a lot of cosmetic damage. You see cracks and signs that there was an earthquake. But most of those buildings have people back in them. The earthquake standards were such that you could ride out the quake if the apartments were built the right way." Said Santa Monica attorney Bruce A. Broillet. His firm, Greene, Broillet, Taylor & Wheeler, represents Alan Hemsath, a first-floor tenant who survived the quake but was injured when he was pinned against his refrigerator.

Defense lawyers are pursuing the theory that the temblor's greatest force was felt in a circumscribed area that includes Northridge Meadows.

"We're still studying how this earthquake hit this particular building," Koeller said. "It might lie in an axis of buildings that were badly hit."

During a recent tour of Northridge Meadows, Freedman described the outward shift of each cluster of buildings. "A major ground shaking occurred right in this middle courtyard," he said. "That's the only sense we can make of it."

Attorneys for both sides agree on one thing: the case will be prolonged and expensive.

"The biggest challenge in this case is the management of it," Freedman said. "One good wrongful death lawsuit could justify five or 10 volumes of litigation."

Plaintiffs' attorneys plan to bring a truckload or two of samples from the demolished complex, as well as stacks of photographs and videotapes, models of the structure, experts of all sorts, and reams of documentation.

But showing Northridge Meadows was defective will not prove defects caused the building's collapse, Freedman said.

"it's going to be tough to convince a jury the earthquake didn't cause the building to collapse."

Even if the plaintiffs should prevail, he added, the defendants' financial resources are limited.

"The biggest question has to do with the practical side, and that is, "Where's the money?" This was a horrible catastrophe, and people are desperate and looking for someone to blame. Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn't have very deep pockets."