Balcony Collapse in California Kills 6; Is your Deck or Balcony Safe?

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Balconies, decks, and other outdoor gathering places often make for the perfect location for a gathering of friends, families, and co-workers. The spaces can provide guests, residents or other visitors a place where they can go to collect their thoughts, breathe some fresh air, or otherwise escape from the noise of the party or other social gathering. For city dwellers and those who live in a condominium or apartment, a balcony or deck often plays a much more central role since the space can be one of the few convenient and relatively seclude locations where the person can relax outdoors.

However balconies, decks and other suspended outdoor spaces present their own risks. When they are improperly installed, maintained, or used the risk of a deck collapse or other accident increases greatly. Tragically, a balcony collapse at a party in San Francisco has killed 6 and has injured several others. In the remainder of this post we will examine the reasons behind and aftermath of the deck collapse in San Francisco, several other recent deck and balcony collapses, and common reasons for balcony and deck failures.

Examining the Berkeley Balcony Collapse that Killed 6

For many, a 21st birthday party is supposed to be a celebration of achieving the last milestone that marks adulthood: the ability to legally purchase and consume alcohol. However, 21st birthday parties often have a way of snowballing into a much bigger event than was planned. In any case, a group of college students had gathered to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of their classmates. While some of the students attending the party were local, many of the students were in the United States on J-1 student visas from various colleges in Ireland.

At about 11:30 p.m., police indicated that they received a noise complaint about a loud party held in a fifth floor apartment. At about 12:30 a.m. and before police arrived, area residents reported that they felt something like an earthquake and heard a loud cracking noise. The vibrations and noises were produced as the fifth floor balcony broke loose from the stucco building to which it was attached. The balcony collapsed onto the fourth floor balcony below and spilled its occupants more than 50 feet onto the pavement below.

The deck collapse killed six and seriously injured seven more individuals. The families of those killed in the accident are seeking answers and looking for ways that this tragedy could have been avoided. While an official cause for the accident has yet to be established, individuals have opined about the cause of the collapse.

A structural engineer considered the number of those killed or injured in the accident and believes that the deck may have been overloaded. However important details must first be accounted for before  officials can draw conclusions regarding the reasons for the collapse. First, the balcony must be measured to determine its dimensions. Then, it must be determined whether the balcony was built to the previous weight-bearing standard of 60-pound-per-square-foot standard or the new standard of 100 -pound-per-square-foot. Furthermore, it is possible that the movements of the deck’s occupants may have placed additional stress on the structure before the collapse.

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What are Other Potential Reasons for a Deck or Balcony Collapse?

There are many other potential causes behind a deck collapse. While all of these reasons are unlikely to apply to the Berkeley collapse, they are important to be cognizant of so that appropriate corrective action can be taken before a collapse or other accident.

To begin with, decks may be improperly installed by a contractor. Depending on the type of deck or balcony, the foundation may be insufficient. The failure of a foundation can cause even a deck that is properly attached to the house or other structure to be torn away. Similarly, contractors that only use nails to attach a deck to the ledger board greatly increase the risk of a failure. For decks installed in this fashion, screws or special brackets should be used to secure the deck. Likewise, using only nails to secure joist hangers is also inviting trouble.

Similarly, improper maintenance can weaken the fasteners that hold the deck in place. Decks and balconies are exposed to the weather elements year-round. Particular aspects of your climate may accelerate the wear and tear on your deck and necessitate constant vigilance and early maintenance. Particularly, those with decks close to the shore where salt spray may corrode metal and weather wood more quickly, special care should be taken. Likewise, if your area is affected by frequent high winds, substantial snowfall, or even a humid climate all of these factors may cause a deck to weather more quickly and increase the odds of a catastrophic failure.

Other structural engineers have opined that dry-rot may be to blame for the deck failure and subsequent collapse. In a statement for the L.A. Times one engineer stated, “It appears to be a classic case of dry rot, meaning water intruded into the building [and] rotted the wood.” There were some signs that dry rot may be a culprit including visible mold on one of the joists and the way the wood fibers broke apart where the beams failed. 

There is always the possibility that multiple factors combined to cause the failure and collapse. As investigators delve further into the details and evidence left at the scene of the accident, the exact causes should become more clear.

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Recent Deck and Balcony Collapses

Unfortunately this incident, while more tragic than most, is not an uncommon or isolated occurrence. Each year as the winter turns to spring and as spring turns to summer, people throughout the country head outdoors and decide to use the outdoor space that has sat idle all winter. They may decide to have a barbeque, picnic, or other type of gathering, but when a deck is present it is a pretty safe bet that it will be part of the festivities. Unfortunately all too often people neglect to consider that their deck needs to be inspected and maintained on, at least, a yearly basis.

On June 13, 2015 in Sheraden, Pennsylvania a family was enjoying the summer weather. One adult and five children were swimming in a small pool. Then, a neighbor remember that she heard a loud crash, followed by what sounded like water being poured out. At first she thought that her neighbors were simply emptying the pool at an odd time, but then she heard the screams and cries for help. Eyewitnesses reported that several people were trapped under the debris from the deck collapse. Four individuals, one adult and three children, suffered relatively minor injuries due to the collapse. However, they were lucky. As we have seen, catastrophic deck failures can inflict life-altering injuries or even death.

Another deck collapsed occurred just days earlier on or about June 10th or 11th in Nova Scotia, Canada. A group of high school students had gathered for a photograph ion a deck. According to estimates, approximately 40 students gathered on the edge of a deck for the photo. A photograph taken actually captures the moment the deck began to collapse. A careful observer of the photograph is likely to notice a bowing in the center of the deck where the load weight was apparently focused. Also, apparent in the photo are pieces of wood falling as the deck began to give way. In all, many of the 40 students on the deck were thrown 10 to 15 feet to the ground. Media reports indicate that 12 individuals were transported to local hospitals for treatment.

Also in Canada, a June 6th deck collapse occurred when, according to authorities, too many teens crammed onto the deck for a 16th birthday party. The collapse occurred in Nova Scotia. The deck fell eight to nine feet but, caused just one injury.

A deck collapse in the Chicago-area provided a stark warning of the dangers of an improperly installed deck on Memorial Day weekend. Friends and family had gathered at the Evanstown home when, “I heard a cracking and literally it just dropped.” This eyewitness was one of seven individuals relaxing on the deck at a Memorial Day party when the deck failed without any warning. After an inspection by the Evanstown building inspector, it was revealed that the deck had not been properly attached to the home. According to the inspector, “Pretty much most deck failures occur where the deck meets the house. That’s what happened here.”

Eyewitnesses and victims of the accident remember everyone – and everything – falling on top of each other. One victim stated that she had numerous cuts and bruises and may have suffered a head injury when she was knocked unconscious. Others were simply happy that the injuries and damage wasn’t worse. One person remarked that a hot barbeque grill also fell when the deck collapsed. They stated that they were thankful that the deck hadn’t crushed or severely burned one of the residents or guests.

On May 17th, a deck holding nine people collapsed in DeKalb County, Georgia. 9 people sought treatment at hospitals and medical facilities. One day earlier, a deck collapse in Noblesville, Indiana injured two. On May 4th, eight student from Cedarville University, located in Ohio, were injured when the deck pulled away from the structure to which it was attached. On April 29, Knoxville city officials declared more than 100 40 –year-old decks in an apartment complex as unsafe following an April 20th collapse. Finally, on April 13th, a Massachusetts man was hospitalized after a rotted support beam failed causing the deck to collapse.

What can these Deck and Balcony Collapses Teach Us About Safety Precautions?

As the accidents and incidents we have just recounted make clear, the leading causes of deck and balcony failures includes loading the deck beyond capacity and structural issues due to improper maintenance or installation.  The most important things a landlord, homeowner or other individual in control of the property can do to protect against a collapse is to have the deck inspected at the beginning of the season and before any large gathering. Furthermore, home owners and renters should be aware of the capacity the deck is rated for and they should not allow guests to exceed these limits.

While deck collapses and deck injuries can happen year round, they are less common in the winter months. Furthermore, when a collapse due to the inability to bear a load occurs the cause is more typically related to the accumulation of snow and ice rather than due to loading the deck past capacity with people. This also typically means that injuries are fewer in these types of collapses.

Injured in a Deck, Balcony or Porch Collapse?

For decades Pennsylvanians and Philadelphians have trusted the personal injury and premises liability attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm to fight for them after another person’s negligence or carelessness has caused catastrophic injuries or wrongful death. To schedule a free and confidential initial legal consultation call our firm at (215) 246-9000 or contact us online today.

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