Railing Collapses and Balcony Fall Accidents

Stephen M. Smith
Last Updated:
December 2, 2019

The owners or operators of a building such as a hotel, an apartment complex or a store have an obligation to check and maintain railings and balconies. This is important because defective railings pose a hazard to children and elderly people in particular.

Railing collapses and balcony fall accidents are rare but often deadly when they occur. In 2015, a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, killing five Irish students and one Irish-American. Seven other students suffered critical injuries.

The families of the deceased later reached a settlement with property managers and owners of the apartment complex. The case highlighted the complicated nature of the construction industry. The balcony collapsed because of water trapped on the deck during construction. This caused extensive rot and led the balcony to fail. However, the materials used were in line with building code regulations.

In 1997, one person died and 18 people ended up with injuries when a balcony collapsed at the University of Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia later agreed to pay $271,500 to settle the case with the students who sustained injuries. An inspection of the balcony three years before the collapse failed to detect rust in a 175-year-old iron support in the structure. The rod snapped, causing the balcony to crash to the ground.

Although most balconies and railings are sound, the tragedies in Berkeley and Charlottesville highlight how structural problems are often hidden. You face a risk of fall injuries from any building. Even a fall of 30 feet can be catastrophic if you hit your head on pavement.

Railings are often put to the test by large crowds. In 2016, 42 people were injured after a railing collapsed during an outdoor performance by rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa in New Jersey. Dozens of fans fell several feet onto a concrete floor. One fan suffered a serious body injury and many others were treated for fractures.

Railings are particularly important because people use them for support on stairwells or other areas. They are usually attached to a building by an anchoring system involving fastening devices. Over time, anchoring systems can work loose and fail. Railings are more likely to fail in older buildings but you should not assume you are safe if you are in a newer hotel or an apartment complex. Always be particularly careful about children who are on balconies or other areas with drops.

Under the law of premises liability, a building owner or a manager is under a duty to make sure railings and balconies are inspected and are safe for visitors or residents to rely on. When things go wrong, the consequences are often tragic.

Recently in Norfolk, a toddler suffered a serious traumatic brain injury when he fell through a gap in the railings on a balcony. The boy’s family filed a lawsuit against the hotel resulting in a $10.9 million payout. The case highlights how hotels that fail to protect their guests often face massive lawsuits. However, no amount of money can make up for the heartbreak of a child suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Who Can be Held Liable for Railings Collapses and Balcony Fall Accidents?

The owner or operator of any facility that invites members of the public as guests can be held liable for railing collapses and balcony fall accidents. This applies to hotel chains, the operators of shopping malls, sports facilities, swimming pools, and restaurants.

The risk of falling from a multi-story building means railings on balconies, stairwells, and common areas must be built in accordance with codes and properly inspected and maintained.

Landlords are also responsible for the upkeep of railings in communal areas in apartment complexes. The duty is on the owner or the occupier of a building to ensure that railings are secure and will not give way when a guest leans on them.

However, a landowner is not usually responsible for injuries suffered by trespassers. For example, an intruder who breaks into a factory to steal material and falls down stairs when a rotten railing gives way is not protected by the law of premises liability.

Because of the risk of falling from a multi-story building, railings must be robust. On occasions, a railing may be of a defective design. It may not be strong enough to bear loads.

Repairs to anchors to railings have to be done in a certain way.  They can’t just be patched up  Often the building owner or a management company must drill a new hole and make sure that a new anchor system at least as good as the original one is installed so as the railing can support a person.

Railings must be installed and repaired to prevent small children from getting through them. Anyone who has childproofed their home will be aware of the meticulous nature of this job. Building owners or contractors must work to minimum distances between the rails.

If a child can get his or her head through the two bars of a rail then it unlikely to be safe.  Railings must meet strict industry standards.

Contact a Virginia Injury Lawyer over Railing Collapses and Balcony Fall Accidents

Railing collapses and balcony falls are often terrible for the victims. People who have seen a child killed or seriously injured in a fall in resorts like Virginia Beach struggle to come to terms with the tragedy. You may not realize it at the time, but often a building owner or manager is liable for the failure of a safety feature. Please contact the Smith Law Center as soon as possible at (757) 244-7000.

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