Insurer Files $9.5M Lawsuit Against City of Astoria, Contractors Over Buoy Brewery Collapse

Photo courtesy of City of Astoria
The Buoy Beer Company building collapsed in June 2022.

The brewery, which partially collapsed in 2022 and experienced a second partial collapse in December, began demolition this week.

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A former insurer for Buoy Beer Company is suing the City of Astoria, Rickenbach Construction, Stricker Engineering and Columbia Dockworks for $9.5 million in damages from the 2022 partial collapse of the Buoy Beer Company’s waterfront building in Astoria.

The building, which collapsed in June 2022, began demolition this week.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Clatsop County Court, contends that the city and other defendants were “willfully ignorant, fraudulently concealing, or negligently unaware of the severe and deteriorating condition of the Brewery.”

The plaintiff in the suit is Mt. Hawley Insurance Company, which, according to Buoy co-founder David Kroening, no longer insures Buoy. Instead, River Barrel Brewing — Buoy’s parent company — is listed as a subrogee on the complaint, meaning its right to sue has been subrogated to the insurer, which is seeking to recoup its payout connected with the collapse.

Kroening and Rickenbach declined to comment when reached by Oregon Business. Neither Stricker nor the City of Astoria responded to requests for comment, nor did the plaintiff’s attorney, Cozen O’Connor of Seattle.

Timothy Peitsch, the president of Columbia Dockworks, told The Astorian, “We didn’t do any work in the affected area, and the only work that we’ve ever done on that building is still standing. So it’s not really relevant to us.”

“During the 8 years prior to the collapse, Defendants, which includes construction contractors and engineers who performed work on the Brewery, recognized the imminent danger that Brewery patrons and the building itself faced,” the complaint says. “Nonetheless, Defendants allowed the Brewery to deteriorate while failing to warn the Brewery owner, customers, and visitors of the consequences of their continued substandard work.”

The lawsuit notes that a 2013 conditional-use permit application did not include a structural analysis by an engineer. It quotes Paul Benoit, who served as city manager from 2005 to 2013 and as interim city manager at the time of the collapse, as saying such an evaluation would not be required unless it was for a new construction.

That quote appears to have been pulled from Oregon BusinessOctober 2022 story on the collapse, “Adrift,” for which OB spoke to Benoit over the phone.

In that story, OB reported that the owner of the building, Bornstein Seafoods — whose co-owner, Andrew Bornstein, is also a co-owner of River Barrel Brewing — received a letter in 2003 from a structural engineer warning that the building was “in extremely poor condition and the life-safety of all occupants is at risk.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants used the building’s historic designation as a “cloak” to avoid compliance with building codes. (Rickenbach Construction and Bornstein Seafoods applied for historic designation for the building — which was built in 1924 and has previously operated as a seafood cannery and, at one time, as a storage site for mink feed — in 2013.) The Oregon state building code includes a clause saying alterations to historic buildings may be made without conforming to all aspects of code, provided any unsafe conditions are corrected, and the restored building will be “no more hazardous based on life safety, fire safety and sanitation” than the existing building.

The insurer’s lawsuit notes that multiple permits were issued between 2013, when work began to turn the building into a brewery, and 2022, when the building collapsed — and none of them included a structural evaluation by an engineer.

Notably, in 2016 Clair Company — a Corvallis-based engineering consulting firm the City of Astoria contracted with for building-plan reviews — sent a letter to Rickenbach Construction recommending that the City of Astoria not approve a permit application from Rickenbach for a remodel and buildout of the kitchen and brewery. The letter says the permit application, which included drawings made by Stricker, failed to say how the contractor would address more than 50 building-code requirements not addressed in the permit application and plan.

The public record does not include a response from Rickenbach or Stricker addressing Clair’s concerns. The City of Astoria approved the building permit Dec. 7, 2016, two weeks and a day after Clair’s letter was issued and one month to the day after Rickenbach submitted a permit application to the city.

According to reporting from The Astorian, demolition of the Buoy building is expected to take approximately three weeks, during which time the Astoria Riverfront Trolley will run a limited route. In 2022 OB reported that the pilings underneath the brewery were held to the pile field under the trolley tracks by a horizontal tether.

In December 2023, the building experienced a second partial collapse, prompting officials to reroute the Astoria Riverwalk trail.

Public records show the City of Astoria issued a commercial-demolition permit to Rickenbach for the demolition of the brewery and cleanup of loose debris in the area in February 2024.

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