Deck collapse cases require proof of cause, knowledge


Outdoor decks are a common amenity for outdoor living at homes, apartments, condominiums, restaurants and commercial properties throughout Atlanta and Georgia. It seldom occurs to most people that these pleasant decks may hold hidden dangers that suddenly lead to serious injury or even death.

Every year there are many incidents of deck collapses in which people are seriously injured or killed. Some of the common preventable causes of deck collapses, based on building code violations that could be detected with inspection, include:

-        Failure to protect against decay. Building codes require that all structural elements exposed to weathering must be protected against decay. That generally means using preservative-treated lumber.  If standard lumber is used in a deck the contractor or owner must apply an approved on-site treatment to the open and exposed ends and paint the rest to bring the deck into compliance.

-        Inadequate fasteners. Too often, building designs do not specify fasteners used to attach decks to the adjacent structure.  Building codes, however, require that in order to resist corrosion,  fasteners, joint hangers and anchor straps used in deck construction must be zinc-coated galvanized steel, stainless steel, silicon bronze, or copper. Building codes also specify the correct type, size, and number of fasteners that must be used. Decks must be affixed to the primary structure with specified types of lag screws, bolts and washers, not merely nailed. However, contractors may cut corners by using untreated or undersized nails to attach decks to the primary structure. The results can be fatal.

-        Insufficient support and anchoring. Current building codes require that all decks must be anchored against wind uplift and laterally braced to prevent the deck from racking and from becoming a projectile in high winds or an earthquake. Footings must both support the deck from downward load and secure it against uplift in high winds.

-         Missing or noncompliant guardrails and handrails. Building codes require guardrails for decks and porches whenever the floor surface is more than 30 inches above the surrounding grade. Guardrails must be no less than 36 inches high, and balusters must be not less than 4 inches apart. A bench may be built against a guardrail but the bench cannot itself be the guard. Screened porches and decks, if 30 inches or more above grade, must also have guardrails. If stairs include more or more risers, handrails are. If a staircase is more than 30 inches above the grade or floor below, a guardrail is also required.

Potential liability of a builder for defective construction of a deck is limited by an eight year statute of repose. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-51.

In seeking to prove liability of a property owner for injury or death resulting from a deck collapse, it is essential to prove the cause for the collapse – defective construction, inadequate maintenance, overloading, etc. – preferably supported by expert testimony about the specific inadequacies and code violations. In addition, it is necessary to establish that the defendant property owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard.