Lacrosse cladding case: Apartment owners caught in ‘painful’ legal minefield
ABC News
By Karen Percy
16 September 2017

Leonie and Steve Roberson say they feel like they're caught in the middle of a "blame game" at the Lacrosse building. (ABC News: Verity Gorman)

Amid the flour and the sugar and the butter, Leonie Roberson, is in a happy place.

Several nights a week, the Wagga Wagga sales executive hits the kitchen to produce the sweet offerings she sells at local markets.

Sensational Slices started as a side business but it might take on a greater role for Leonie and her husband Steve after their retirement nest egg investment property at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne's Docklands was damaged in a November 2014 fire.

"It's been very upsetting. It gives us a lot of stress, just worrying what the final outcome is going to be," Ms Roberson says.

The Robersons are among 137 Lacrosse owners who are taking action against the builder, LU Simon, through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

The Lacrosse apartment building in Melbourne's Docklands caught on fire in November, 2014.  (Audience submitted: Wade Savage)

"We can't sell it because it doesn't comply with regulations, it's not worth what we paid for it — so basically it's a dead loss at the moment until we find out what the outcome is of all the VCAT tribunals," she said.

They bought their two-bedroom apartment off-the-plan in 2008 for $595,000.

But it suffered smoke and water damage, and their tenant had to move out for a number of months.

Insurance has covered most of their losses, but the Robersons are still out of pocket by about $9,000.

Leonie Roberson says everybody is looking for someone else to blame.
(ABC News: Verity Gorman)


'Not enough accountability,' consumer groups say
The cladding used on the outside of the building, known as Alucobest, was found to have been highly flammable and did not comply with Australian building standards.

If the owners have to pay to reclad the building, the bill could be anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 per apartment.

Documents filed with VCAT by lawyers for LU Simon say; "the use of Alucobest ... in buildings of this type has been a common practice across Australia for at least 40 years."

"The use of such panels has been routinely approved by the Metropolitan Fire Board, independent fire engineers, architects and building surveyors.

"The state of technical knowledge prior to the fire was such that any fire safety issue was not known in the industry."

Anne Paten says there is no consumer protection for apartment owners.
(ABC News: Vinnie Catanzariti)


Consumer advocates like the Victorian Building Action Group are lobbying for better protection for home owners.

Group spokesperson, Anne Paten, says consumers are increasingly frustrated that despite mounting evidence, little seems to change in an industry in which some operators come and go with little accountability.

"What happens is that one blames the other, (who) blames the other and at the end of the day none of the practitioners involved end up being to blame," Ms Paten said.

"Ultimately ... the blame and the pain financially ends up with the owners."
Finding who is potentially responsible is a complex matter in the Lacrosse case.

LU Simon is in turn is taking action against the surveyors, the architects, the fire consultant and those who rented and lived in apartment 805, where the fire started as a result of a smouldering cigarette butt on the balcony.

Legal 'blame game'
In VCAT documents seen by the ABC, LU Simon states that surveyor Stasi Galanos approved the use of the Alucobest cladding as well as issuing the building permit.

They also allege he failed to stipulate that balconies could not be used for storage, when issuing the occupancy permit after construction was complete in 2012.

The builders also contend that the Gardner Group, which employed Mr Galanos, failed to exercise reasonable care.

LU Simon says Elenberg Fraser, architects, were responsible for choosing the cladding, something the architects deny.

Elenberg Fraser says in documents filed at VCAT that "...the Alucobest was selected by LU Simon".

Elenberg Fraser saw a sample but asked the builders to "check to see that the product met the warranty requirements under the project specification and otherwise complied with the project specification."

"Elenbergy Fraser approved the colour of the sample only."

Tanah Merah Vic Pty Ltd, operating as Thomas Nicolas, says the fire engineering report expressly stated the need to use non-combustible materials on the external walls and balconies and in a statement to the ABC "denies liability for all claims in the VCAT proceeding".

Gyeyoung Kim, who rented the apartment, is also named as a respondent for failing to "exercise reasonable care not to create a fire hazard in the use and occupation of the unit."

French tourist, Jean-Francois Gubitta, whose late-night cigarette started the fire, is also named.

He was living in Melbourne while on a working holiday visa and has since returned to France.

Elenberg Fraser has "joined" or added Property Development Solutions (PDS) to the action, according to documents lodged with VCAT.

PDS acted as the building superintendent or contract manager for the construction of the Lacrosse building.

Elenberg Fraser alleges "the superintendent was to review the (cladding) samples submitted" and that PDS "failed to detect LU Simon's failure to comply" with the construction and design specifications.

The documents allege the Alucobest cladding was supposed to have been "folded and mechanically fixed" to the sub-frame.

Instead the panels were stuck to the sub-frame with adhesive flat tape which "contributed to the quick spread of the fire".

In a statement issued to the ABC, PDS "deny the allegations raised".

Anne Paten from the Victorian Building Action Group wants governments to act to enact effective regulation.

"Effectively we have no regulation. Combine that with no penalties and no punishment the message for all of those in the building industry is 'you can do what you like," she said.

"Basically there is no consumer protection at all ... that's a myth that's propagated by the Government.

"For ... almost three decades government policy has been to protect the business interests and not to protect the consumers."

The Lacrosse parties will be back at VCAT on Monday.


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