Court rules building owners liable for earthquake deaths

June 23, 2010

A California appellate court upheld a San Luis Obispo County jury decision to award the families of two women who were killed when a Paso Robles building collapsed on them almost $2 million in damages. [Judgment]

The 111-year-old Acorn Building in Paso Robles was not reinforced to handle an earthquake.

Both Jennifer Lynn Myrick and Marilyn Frost-Zafuto worked in a clothing store in the building. In December 2003, during the San Simeon earthquake, a portion of the building collapsed, crushing them.

On appeal, the defendant, building owner Mary Mastagni, argued she had no duty to retrofit the building until 2018, the deadline established by a city ordinance.

The Ventura-based Second District California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.

“Certainly, the city considered the interests of building owners in setting the deadline for compliance,” said Justice Arthur Gilbert in the appellate court’s decision. “But the overriding policy behind the seismic retrofit ordinance, taken as a whole, is not the promotion of the interests of building owners. Instead, the overriding policy is public safety.”

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For those who say the earthquake was “an act of God” to defend of the owner’s negligence, I say rubbish. It would appear the court feels the same way. I don’t think anyone’s intimating that the owner could have prevented an earthquake. The problem I and others have is that there were definite and available resources to have prevented these deaths. If there’s any good news in this outcome, it is nothing short of amazing that many more people did not perish on a busy morning of Christmastime shoppers.

Whether or not people decide to file frivolous lawsuits isn’t the issue; those will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The facts are clear, but horribly unfortunate. Mastagni knew, much more so than even her opposition, that the building was unsafe. It arguably should have been demolished years ago and she is fully aware of that. To dispute this – even after the deaths of two people – is nothing short of unconscionable.

Scroll down and read my previous post. You’ll find more to this story.

(Copy of previous post)

The building is well over a century old. We live in earthquake country. Parkfield is called the earthquake capital of the world. A quick look at USGS or widespread media will tell you we have near constant earthquake activity. Retrofits are nothing new. Longtime business owners know too well there was a wave of retrofitting in the ’70s. Public buildings were retrofitted. Public utility companies have – for decades – provided instructions for natural disasters, including earthquakes. Our state has had catastrophic quakes in recent decades, such as San Francisco and Northridge. The only reason Niblick Bridge stayed up was because it was engineered to withstand a quake. Fault lines run throughout our entire state. I mean, really. What more warning do you want that a quake could cause massive damage and kill people?

As for Monday morning quarterback, what do you think the courts were doing? They were sifting through evidence for two and a half years to determine whether or not Ms. Mastagni should have repaired her ancient building.

Here’s the part no one talks about…not even the court.

Those who have been here a long time know that the Mastagnis have owned a stretch of businesses on 12th street and other properties in town. Over 30 years ago, there was a huge gas explosion in one of them toward Spring Street. It was a big deal at the time and a real mess. The city tagged it, so it was torn down later. When the city saw the damage at the dress shop she operated, it was also declared unsafe and the city wanted to tear that down, too, and at the last second, Mr. Mastagni wouldn’t have it. He hadn’t owned the property very long, so it was understandable that the last thing he want to do was lose it to demolition. While I don’t know how he managed to pull it off, Mastagni got his way and they repaired the fractured structure instead.

Want to take a guess which building it was they saved?

Ann’s Dress Shop…the very building where those women died. I don’t know about you, but I find that chilling.

More than anyone, it was Ms. Mastagni who knew that building was likely to come down in a quake. Her store was already given a pass once in the 70’s when it was saved and she wanted another one. Remember, this is someone who had the assets to back up the cost of repairs. The delay was about stubbornness and money. Pure and simple. Anyone who knows her at all knows that. The irony is that she’s paying more now than she ever thought she would.

However “disappointed” she feels about the $2 million dollar ruling, that money is really an insult and a mere pittance when you consider two innocent women who paid the ultimate price. And for what? Going to work.

O.k. so I have only been here thirty years and I do remember that there apparently was an explosion around 77′ from what I have read of the city’s history in the past. For the record I have read this a number of years ago. I haven’t gone out and Googled it on the net. My understanding is that the only building I know of that exploded in that area was the building that stood where the parking lot due west of Marv’s pizza is now. That lot once housed a building that exploded.

The only Mastagni building I know of that would be close was the one that had the name over the door (Mastagni) and is right next door to Marv’s. Now here is where I am confused. I thought Ann’s was in the Acorn building??? So was there an explosion in the Acorn building years ago??

To your point of living in earthquake country. Yes Parkfield produces frequent SMALL quakes. From the Geology I studied in college about California you still have a much greater chance of a large quake towards the ends of the San Andre’s than in the middle. This isn’t my opinion, this is fact!! To that end you can also say that we again ALL KNOW of the inherent dangers in living in California. Or let’s put this another way. Do we start making all properitity owners that have build on the Gulf coast, responsible for their buildings due to hurricanes? I mean common that has been a common occurrence for a hundred years.

Again my original point is that you will get trial lawyers that WILL start going after every business owner for EVERYTHING from this, to every other ACT OF MOTHER NATURE that happens. Like someone posted here, that statement is posted on every insurance policy that there is. Of course they (insurance) use God but God or mother nature, one in the same. Unforseen actions. How’s that.

The business next door to the Acorn building is what fell, previously known as Ann’s – and the Style Center dress shop years ago. The damage didn’t only happen to the card room, but to the Style Center and neighboring businesses…lots broken glass and flying bits of structure flew everywhere.

As for Parkfield, you said it in your own words: “chance.” In an “act of God,” it’s understood that no person but God knows when, where, or how damaging that act can be. The minute we think we know it all and take these acts for granted is when it becomes proven how much we don’t know. Because we sit on fault lines, you do what common sense and the engineers tell you’ you reinforce the buildings. In other words, you do what’s been proven to work and exhaust your efforts to see it through. That way, you conduct business knowing that you did everything that you know you could have done – and the law already stipulates – to conduct business in a safer, century-old building. That’s why some of them had no damage and others did after that 6.5. My point is…her building was already questionable at best before the quake. During the quake, everyone inside Ann’s saw firsthand just how weakened it was.

————Right On!

Here is what I just saw in the paper this morning. With this now hopitals, schools and univerisities will become liable. So who pays for that? That’s right folks. You and me. Johnny taxper.

Another thing mentioned is that you can bank on the fact that this WILL drive up insurance or make this uninsureable. So with that in mind, what sane thinking business man will take the financial risk of all his goods? NOBODY. So then in about five years when all those who think this is great are belly aching about lack of JOBS remember the old addage, UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.

If you think this won’t happen it already has. We in California tried to put the screws to businesses with taxes. THEY HAVE LEFT IN TROVES!!! If you don’t think this will happen here you are fooling yourselfs. Again sad tradegy but get over it. People die everyday of tradegies. Either we learn and move forward or we can sit around trying to find Johnny Cochraine at the cemetery, so we can sue, sue, sue. This outcome WILL have very bad consequences. I will guarantee it.

I have to agree. This was a very poor ruling. The earth quake was an act of God and the building owners were not in violation of anything. This ruling will surely harm California business. The next step will be to sue business owners when a ceiling fixture falls or a window shatters during a quake. Might as well move to another state.

This doesn’t surprise me. Mastagni knew the building wasn’t safe. They had hired engineers to evaluate the safety. When the report was completed, they chose to ignore the safety issue. If you know of a problem you own the problem!

Very well said, and they did know,”If you know of a problem you own the problem!” Sorry hope they are insured, pay up!