America’s decks, porches, verandas, and balconies have seen a lot of use this summer, as families have sought out ways to bond, connect with neighbors, have fun, and stay cool at home. Unfortunately, many of these breezy outdoor architectural features carry hidden flaws, which can put users in danger of serious injury and death.
According to an analysis performed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), collapsing decks and porches caused approximately 6,500 emergency room visits and 29 deaths between 2003 and 2015.
These casualties were not evenly spaced over the years. Many happened in large, sudden clusters, including a single incident in 2003 that claimed 13 lives. There’s a reason for that. A well-constructed deck should be able to stand up to heavy human traffic with no trouble, but the stress of intense use is usually what reveals an unsafe deck for what it is. Additionally, contrary to what the movies show, it’s not possible to jump off of a surface that is already falling, so people who are on a deck when it collapses are rarely able to react in any useful way. All of this adds up to decks failing instantaneously in the middle of social gatherings, injuring several people at once before anyone even understands what’s happening to them.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to a deck collapse, The Stoddard Firm can help you get the compensation you need.
People Who Live Near Water Are at Increased Risk of Deck Collapse Accidents
Humidity and salt in the air can both significantly accelerate the deterioration of wood and metal. That’s something designers, builders, inspectors, and property owners all need to be aware of when adding or maintaining a deck in a coastal or high-precipitation area.
On July 25th, 2019, one family threw a party just four months after moving into their new home in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. During the evening, their second-floor deck collapsed with at least eight people on it. After an investigation, the house was labeled unsafe for entry.
Less than two months later, farther down the New Jersey coast in Wildwood, a condo complex saw an even more catastrophic collapse, in which a pair of third- and second-story decks fell to the ground on top of each other, trapping people in between. Altogether, 22 people were rescued from the wreckage. One had to be airlifted for emergency medical care, two were sent to trauma centers, and 19 more were treated and released same day, including three children. Examination of the rubble revealed rotten wood, among other flaws and forms of deterioration.
Something similar also happened at a coastal rental cottage in Northern Virginia in June of 2020. A second-story deck collapsed onto a first-story one, injuring three people. One expert attributed the failure to corrosion in the ocean air and improperly fastened joists, which had separated over time.
Deck Collapses Are Generally Covered by Homeowners Insurance
Though there are a shocking number of disasters that basic homeowners insurance doesn’t cover, including earthquakes and floods, most policies will cover the damage caused by a spontaneous deck collapse, including the harm to any people involved in the accident. The only exception would be if the damage was caused by a lack of basic maintenance on the homeowner’s part. However, this exception most often applies to issues like pest infestation and mold growth arising from unchecked water damage. Decks should be expected to hold up to high and changing moisture levels, so when they fail to do so, the problem usually lies deeper than the homeowner’s everyday usage and upkeep.
Homeowners insurance also covers the owner’s personal liability toward guests, so whether you were injured in your own home or while visiting a friend, the insurance policy on the house in question should cover your injuries.
Of course, insurance companies are not known for paying out fair settlements without complaint. No matter how clearly your losses are covered under an insurance policy, you’ll probably need a lawyer’s help to collect fair compensation. Thankfully, the legal precedents are on your side when it comes to collapsing decks.
In fact, in August of 1999, a man named George Rosen sued his insurer, State Farm, for refusing to cover his $87,000 claim for deck repair. The deck had not collapsed at the time of the suit, but was unsafe for use and on the verge of giving way at any moment. State Farm argued that they were only liable in case of an actual collapse, while Rosen argued that it would be cheaper for everyone, not to mention less potentially tragic, for State Farm to pay for the repairs immediately, instead of repairs and additional damages later. The judge ruled in favor of Rosen, and the decision was upheld upon appeal in 2002.
Property Owners Have a Responsibility to Provide a Safe Environment
All property owners have a general responsibility to make sure their property is safe for anyone who has legal access to it. As noted above, in the case of private houses where the owner is also the resident, the financial responsibility when someone gets hurt is usually shifted to the homeowners insurance company.
Some landlords also carry liability insurance policies to cover injuries to their tenants and guests. However, if the owner has no insurance, or contributed to the accident by breaking the insurance company’s rules, the owner may be solely responsible for the damages.
Whether a deck collapse happens in a resident-owned home, a rented residential property, or a commercial property, the basic concepts of owner and insurance liability are the same.
For example, one family who celebrated their reunion at Scott Colona’s Family Park in Illinois is currently seeking compensation for their injuries after a deck collapsed beneath them during a group photo, injuring 17 members badly enough to necessitate hospital care. The family’s two separate lawsuits add up to over $50,000 in alleged damages. One of the suits points out that the park is advertised as “perfect for family reunions,” indicating that its facilities should be safe for a group the size of a typical family reunion.
Contractors Are Also Responsible for Making Sure Decks Are Safe
In addition to the responsibilities of a property owner and their insurance company, construction and maintenance contractors also have a duty to make sure their work doesn’t endanger anyone. In some situations, where the property owner had every reason to believe the correct work was being done to make the structure safe, contractors may be solely responsible for their mistakes. Other times, contractors, owners, and insurance companies may share liability.
In June of 2017, the deck of the historic Weaver House in Ottawa County, Michigan collapsed during a crowded event. Upon examination, the wood used to construct the deck in 2005 was deemed “not suitable for outdoor use.” Two of the 25 people who were on the deck at the time of the collapse decided to sue for compensation for their injuries, including the cost of multiple foot surgeries. The first defendant named was the county parks department, which controls the Weaver House. However, the parks department successfully argued that the architecture firm that built the deck should bear the liability, because the collapse was caused by a construction flaw and not a maintenance issue. Unfortunately, the architecture firm was only ordered to pay a total of $12,500, just half of what each plaintiff was seeking. The case against the county itself is now being appealed.
Decks and Other Load-Bearing Outdoor Structures Should Not Depend on Nails for Strength
An attached deck derives much of its structural soundness from its ledger board, the part of the frame that connects to the exterior wall of the building. As such, it’s vital that the board be made from suitable materials and held securely in place with the right hardware, which should always include screws or bolts.
Frank Woeste, a retired Virginia Tech professor whose past construction research has contributed to the International Residential Code, believes that about 90% of deck collapses are caused by the ledger board pulling away from the building, usually because it was held in place exclusively with nails.
Another expert builder, Tim Carter, has explained on The Washington Post why nails are so unsuitable for deck building. As he puts it, nails are an internal fastener. They’re only reliable in situations where they won’t come in contact with moisture. Exposure to the elements quickly rusts and weakens the delicate iron nails. It also expands and contracts the surrounding wood repeatedly, causing it to loosen or even crack around the nail entry points. Unlike screws, nails have nothing to hold them in place once their fit is no longer perfect. Carter also warns that even galvanized nails may not solve the rust problem, because many nails sold as “galvanized” carry only a thin zinc coating that wears off within a few years.
The problems with nails in deck construction aren’t purely theoretical either. In 2009, InspectAPedia did a case study on a collapsed deck that had sent three people to the hospital, and very nearly crushed a group of children who had been playing underneath it. The ledger board had been attached to the wall entirely with nails, and some of the joists were attached to the ledger board with steel connectors and roofing nails. Roofing nails are not designed for load-bearing, even when ordinary nails would work. They’re meant for holding shingles and other roofing materials in place, and they’re prone to cracking when used in direct contact with steel.
That’s an extreme case of poor engineering and construction, but even the strongest construction nails can allow a deck ledger board to fail, especially in a waterfront environment. On the Fourth of July in 2015, a family of 24 gathered for a photo on a home deck in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. The deck, which had not been inspected for some time, collapsed under them. Five of the family members were taken to a local hospital, two of them in critical condition. The island’s town manager later reported that the aging nails “simply fell apart.”
One neighbor who saw the aftermath of the three-story Wildwood condo collapse also reported that the wood of the fallen decks was all “nailed in.” The local fire department promptly advised all landlords in the area to check their buildings for decay and outdated, unsafe designs.
What to Do After a Deck Collapse
Immediately after a deck has collapsed during use, follow these guidelines to minimize the harm:
- Take stock of any apparent injuries. If anyone shows signs of broken bones, severe lacerations, or other trauma, call for emergency services. Anyone involved in the accident who shows no signs of significant injury should still be examined at their earliest convenience.
- If anyone is trapped in the wreckage and you are able to do so quickly, move any pieces of debris that are exerting pressure on a person’s body. If this leads to severe bleeding, apply a tourniquet.
- If you are unable to relieve the pressure on a crush injury within 15 minutes of the accident, leave the debris in place until paramedics arrive.
- Do not attempt to move a severely injured person unless absolutely necessary.
- Do not attempt to remove a foreign object penetrating a survivor’s body.
- Once immediate medical needs are met, document the accident with photographs and write down your experience as you remember it.
- Finally, find qualified legal counsel to help you make sure your compensation fairly reflects the damages.
The Stoddard Firm is experienced in cases of negligent construction and maintenance, and we’re particularly skilled at making our clients’ injuries understood in court, so that they receive fair compensation not only for their financial losses, but also for any pain or lost quality of life.
To start with a free consultation today, reach out through our online chat function or give us a call at 678-RESULT.