Earthquake Victims’ Families Awarded $2 Million From Building Owners Who Failed to Retrofit Historic Building

San Luis Obispo, CA

A jury awarded nearly $2 million in damages Monday for the families of two women killed in the collapse of a building in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake, saying the building owners were negligent in failing to reinforce it. The verdict in the civil wrongful-death trial included an award for each for the surviving parents of Jennifer Myrick and for the surviving daughter and husband of Marilyn Frost-Zafuto.

Myrick, 20, and Frost-Zafuto, 55, died while trying to flee the historic Acorn Building in downtown Paso Robles during the magnitude-6.5 quake. In finding for the plaintiffs, the jury decided property owner Mary Mastagni and several trusts and businesses owned by her family were responsible for the 111-year-old Acorn Building and were negligent in its maintenance and operation.

The surviving family members attended nearly all of the two-month trial. All expressed satisfaction with the outcome. “It won’t ever bring my mother back or Jen; it won’t ever close that door for us,” Phillips said. “But the jurors have spoken, and there is accountability. That does give us the closure we were looking for.” Dennis Zafuto said the amount of money was not an issue to him, and he felt justice was served. “The price on someone’s life is impossible to determine,” he said. The Myricks said they hope the verdict will set an example for other owners of unreinforced buildings. The couple has worked to tighten legislation regarding such structures. “This has nothing to do with money,” Leroy Myrick said. “They could have given us $50 million, and it could never replace our daughter.”

Under state and local laws, the property owners had until 2018 to renovate the building for seismic safety. This fact came up frequently during trial and during the protracted jury deliberations. According to Plaintiff’s attorney, Rick Friedman, the biggest hurdle in the case was overcoming the owners’ claim that they were reasonable in postponing needed retrofitting. “The owners had notice of the danger and ignored it for years, therefore they bore a measure of responsibility.” According to Friedman, the jury’s decision will motivate building owners to make needed repairs sooner rather than later. “Unreinforced masonry buildings in earthquake prone areas are an invitation to disaster.”