Who doesn't love to relax after work or with friends on their patio, deck or porch? It should be a place to congregate, not get hurt. Accidents can easily turn a good time into a visit to the hospital.
Recent Deck Collapses
Lately the news is full of reports of faulty decks and porches collapsing and injuring people. In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, amidst a 60th birthday celebration, a deck collapsed. Ten partygoers needed hospitalization. There were as many as 20 people on the deck when it gave way. While the cause has not been determined, signs point to age and maintenance issues. Often, the accident site is a rental property.
In a similar incident, a porch collapsed in a Tinley Park condominium in Illinois, injuring 12.
A Chicago porch collapse injured four people. The porch was old, wasn't built to current standards, and hadn't been inspected in many years.
Duties to Guests
If guests are injured in your home, you may be liable for their injuries. Your duty to third persons usually depends on why the injured person was on your property. At one end of the scale, you owe trespassers the lowest level of protection. At the other end you owe persons you invite to your property for business the highest level of protection. Regardless, when someone comes to your home, you owe them at least a duty of "reasonable care." That means that you need to make sure that there is nothing that can obviously cause them harm.
Danger of Decks
Decks can be dangerous when they are overcrowded and not maintained. There are conditions you shouldn't neglect when fixing your deck. Otherwise, you can be sued by your visitors for negligence if they get hurt.
According to the Home Safety Council, about half decks in the United States are in danger of collapsing. That's an astonishing number. There are dangerous collapses every year, and many times the collapse can be prevented.
Many people build or repair their decks themselves; therefore the structure may not be architecturally safe and sound. Furthermore, many people admit to not maintaining their porches as they should, letting them rot and weaken. Follow these steps to ensure that your deck remains intact:
- Get a building permit! One won't be issued if a deck isn't allowed. An inspector will make sure you followed the building code
- Use only approved materials and techniques. Measure twice, cut once, applies to all your inputs and methods
- Hire a licensed contractor. Maybe it's safer than DIY, and you can sip a cool drink and watch. A contractor's license is required in most areas. Check references, see samples of work
- Clean your deck periodically. Grime, grease, and oil (from grilling) can accumulate and rot the wood
- Maintain your deck and repair it as needed by breaking off splinters, refinishing, inspecting nails and making sure the railings and banisters, as well as the wood, are secure
- Check the substructure; make sure there is nothing loose, rotten or unfastened. If there is, fix it, or call a licensed contractor or repairman
If you're a renter, you don't have as much control over the stability of the porch/deck, but you could hire a contractor to look at it and give you an opinion about its safety. Landlords should be cautious and be extra careful about repairs because they have more liability.
Porches and decks can also be a deciding factor when selling your home and many towns require a certificate of occupancy to sell it. Prospective buyers should carefully inspect these as well.
Whether you're a homeowner or a landlord, you need to keep certain safety measures in mind. Those home improvement shows can make fixing and renting rooms or whole houses look easy, but it's as important to follow the building code as it is to have good carpentry skills when making improvements, and sometimes a professional is the answer.
Questions for Your Attorney
- The building code inspector failed my deck, but my contractor won't fix it without more money. What should I do?
- I'm very handy. A building permit costs money. Can I skip getting one if I do it myself?
- A child of a guest ran and tripped over a very obvious broken plank. Can they sue me?
- Am I liable for deck defects I couldn't easily see, or didn't know about?