It's a shocking and unexpected event. Someone is having a party, there are a bunch of people on a balcony or deck, and all of a sudden it collapses. In the best of scenarios, no one is hurt, or personal injuries are minor. The worst of scenarios can be catastrophic. Either way, someone should be liable for an accident like this, but who? That's the focus of this article.
Potentially Liable Parties
Generally speaking, when a balcony or deck collapses, there are a number of different people or entities that might be liable for the resulting injuries and property damage, including:
- the property owner
- the property renter (if the property was the subject of a lease agreement)
- the contractor who built or installed the balcony
- the manufacturer and/or supplier of the balcony and related materials (if all or part of the balcony was purchased instead of built from scratch by a contractor), and
- the municipality (if the balcony had to be inspected before use, or inspected periodically).
Regardless of who might be liable for a balcony or deck collapse, any personal injury lawsuit would likely be brought under the liability theory of negligence. Negligence is based on a "reasonable person" standard. It is the failure to exercise the degree of care that an ordinarily reasonable, cautious, and prudent person would have exercised under all the facts and circumstances existing in some particular situation. (Learn more about negligence and the "reasonable person.")
That definition is heavy on the "legalese," so let’s look at how negligence works with respect to the different people who might be liable for a balcony or deck collapse.
Property Owner/Renter Liability
The property owner or renter could be liable for allowing too many people on the balcony, for not stopping a bunch of people from doing things like coordinated jumping up and down on the balcony, or for not being reasonably vigilant from a "crowd control" standpoint (for example, by ensuring that only a certain number of guests are on the balcony at any one time).
If the property owner has homeowner’s insurance (or if the renter has renter’s insurance), that coverage might pay for any injuries and property damage caused by the collapse, depending on the fine print of the policy, and up to the coverage limits, of course).
But how many people is too many people? And how is the property owner or renter, who most likely didn’t construct or install the balcony, supposed to know what's safe and what's not? The difficulty of answering questions like these is one reason why an owner or renter may very well not be liable for a balcony collapse unless it was pretty obvious that the balcony was in bad shape. If the balcony was built while the property owner owned the property, then he or she might be expected to know what the balcony’s capacity and limits are. But if the owner bought the property with the balcony already constructed, then the current owner may not have any idea what the balcony’s capacity is (and, under the all-important negligence standard, might not reasonably be expected to know). With renters, liability would probably be even tougher to establish.
Bottom line: If a balcony had no noticeable defects (such as broken or missing supports), then it may be pretty hard to hold an owner or renter liable for a balcony collapse, unless there were obviously way too many people on the balcony, like 50 people on a 4 x 8 foot balcony.
Contractors, Manufacturers/Suppliers, and Others
Anyone harmed by a deck or balcony collapse will probably have a stronger case against the contractor who built or installed the balcony, or against the balcony’s manufacturer/supplier, as opposed to the owner or renter of the property.
The contractor could be held liable for negligent construction or installation, or for failing to advise the property owner of how many people the balcony can safely hold. The manufacturer could be liable for producing defective or unreasonably dangerous materials. It's important to figure out whether it's still possible to sue the contractor or manufacturer under any applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose (specific lawsuit filing deadlines often apply to cases alleging injuries from negligent construction).
The city or town’s building inspector might also have been negligent. If the inspector overlooked an obvious defect in construction or installation that a competent building inspector should have seen, the city or town could be held liable for that negligence.
The Role of Contributory Negligence
Finally, it's important to note that the injured people might also be legally responsible for the accident to some degree, and any shared fault could affect the recovery of compensation from others, under state laws on shared fault (known as "comparative negligence" and "contributory negligence"). For example, if the balcony had missing and broken supports that were visible to anyone, and guests went on it anyway, a jury might find that the guests bear some amount of blame for what happened. Similarly, just as a property owner might reasonably be expected to know that it's unsafe for 50 guests to be on a 4 x 8 balcony, so might those guests.