The tenants of 6643 Del Playa Drive — senior house of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity on Isla Vista’s main party drag — claim their landlord was well aware of their apartment building’s rickety and rotted second-story balcony before it collapsed during a party on April 6, sending four people to the hospital. “They knew about it for months and did nothing,” claimed Matt Davidson. But Ron Wolfe of property management company Ronald Wolfe & Associates said his office never heard from the frat brothers about any such structural issues and had no knowledge of potential safety problems. “If they felt there was something wrong with the deck, I’m surprised,” he said. “We have no records from the tenants about the deck.”
Late last month, a lawsuit was filed in Santa Barbara Superior Court against Ronald Wolfe & Associates — as well as the building’s owner, the Elliot Family Trust — on behalf of Stephanie Grace, a 21-year-old UCSB student from Los Angeles. Grace was knocked unconcious and pinned under the balcony when it buckled under the weight of 20 or so people partaking in the massive Deltopia party that drew nearly 18,000 revelers from all over the state. Grace suffered a fractured pelvis, has had to stop working as a campus lifeguard, and is struggling to finish her senior year classes so she can graduate on time, explained her attorney Robert Clayton of the L.A.-based firm Taylor & Ring, LLP.
Claiming Wolfe & Associates was negligent in the upkeep of the Del Playa home and is liable for Grace’s injuries, the lawsuit is seeking compensation for past and future medical bills and loss of earnings. Clayton noted the case is in its early stages and that his investigation is ongoing, so he declined to name a final dollar amount. He said, though, that Grace’s medical bills have reached $25,000 and are climbing, and that she doesn’t have health insurance. “You also never know about long-term pain,” he said. Another student hurt in the accident has retained Clayton as an attorney, but has yet to file a complaint. She sustained multiple fractures to her left tibia and now has a steel rod in her shin, he said.
In an interview last Friday, Wolfe said he hadn’t read the lawsuit and so couldn’t comment on its specific claims. “At this point it appears there are a lot of unsupported allegations,” he said. “I’m confident that once facts are bared out, we will be cleared of wrongdoing.” And why, he wondered, if the tenants knew the balcony was unsafe would they pile so many people on to it? “It appears like a clear misuse of the premise,” he said.
Clayton said he’s spoken with a number of witnesses who claim Wolfe & Associates was aware of the balcony problem, sending out an insurance inspector last November, painting over the rotted and termite-ridden attachments and, giving the renters the “all clear” to use the deck as they pleased. The place was such a mess, Clayton went on, that one tenant described it as “a cross between Animal House and Amityville Horror.” While tenant Matt Davidson contacted The Santa Barbara Independent right after accident to distance himself and his brothers from any fault, attempts to follow up with him and other Beta Theta Pi representatives have been unsuccessful. Clayton said he decided to not include the tenants in the lawsuit because he believes they will be good witnesses and are not to blame for the balcony’s collapse. “California law says the [building] owners have a non-delegable duty, meaning they’re responsible,” he said.
Massoud Abolhoda with the County Planning Department said his office inspects new buildings during their initial construction but that staff don’t often return unless there’s a specific complaint. In 6643 Del Playa Drive’s case, he said, there are no complaints on file. But county officials did visit the site after the collapse, he went on, and found it was “definitely a dry rot case. The wood was greatly undermined.” Because the apartment’s second story window no longer has an emergency exit — the sliding glass door that led to the balcony is now boarded over — Ronald Wolfe & Associates was given 30 days to create a new one, Abolhoda said.