Over the summer there have been several high-profile building collapses across the country. Unfortunately, these collapses are becoming commonplace as our buildings continue to age without reconstructive efforts or proper inspections taking place to offset the effects of time. Our firm’s attorneys have witnessed the same problems time after time. People complain about unstable or dangerous buildings to the property manager, a building safety department, or even the authorities and yet the result is often the same. Nothing is done, reports are filed away and repairs are never demanded or the buildings never inspected, until one day the building collapses on innocent people.
Berkeley, California Balcony Collapse – June 16, 2015
The influx of summer building collapses began with the deadly Berkeley balcony failure, where late in the evening on June 16, six people died and seven more were injured after the fourth floor balcony they were standing on suddenly detached from the wall. During the investigation, investigators discovered the cause of the structure failure was linked to severe dry rot. Dry rot is caused by water damage that is left untreated and can undermine a building’s wooden structure enough to cause a collapse. However, when dealing with a balcony that is exposed to the elements, it is common practice to design any structure to ensure that excess water does not seep through to the wooden supports.
The fact that dry rot was present in this structure failure may indicate a design flaw and certainly indicates a lack of proper maintenance. Although the cause of the water damage is still technically unknown, there were some immediate changes made to regulations, including requiring inspections of all balconies exposed to weather every six months. While the possible improper building of the balcony and lack of inspections to discover the dry rot are both serious issues, an even more insidious problem reared its head in this case. It was soon discovered that the contractor who built the balcony had paid $3.5 million to settle a dry rot related collapse lawsuit only two years ago. Yet this massive black mark on the contractor’s record was never reported to the Contractor’s State License Board. The reason for this oversight is simple; the Board does not require such information to be reported. Architects, engineers, and other professional builders must report any settlements to their licensing boards, but for some reason, contractors are exempt from this rule, even though they are the professionals most often hired to perform work on residential homes or apartments. Builders have been known to rely on this exemption so that they are not kept out of the business even if they have a serious history of failing to build their structures up to code.
After this building failure, the Contractor’s State License Board, claimed that it would try to “close gaps” in the information they obtain. However, at the moment there is still no change to the rules that leave building and homeowners in the dark about past problems with building collapses relating to their contractors. In the day and age where most people won’t buy a used car without learning every detail of its accident history, we continue to give contractors the license to build something as important as the roof you sleep under or the balcony you walk out on without so much as a passing glance at prior allegations of structure collapses or code violations against that contractor.
Folsom, California Stairway Collapse – July 3, 2015
There have been several high profile building collapses in the Folsom area over the years due to a lack of proper inspections or maintenance. It seems that the proposed increase in inspections after each incident have done nothing to curb this dangerous issue. This persistent problem with dry rot causing structure collapses returned a few short weeks later with another structure collapse in Folsom. On July 3, an outside staircase fell while two students were walking out of an apartment. One student died and the other was injured in this tragic building failure. In the investigations into this incident, it was found that only a year earlier, a different staircase had fallen in the same apartment complex due to dry rot. This collapse alerted the managers to the fact that there was a widespread problem with dry rot throughout the building and contractors were hired by the owners to make repairs. Despite receiving permits to repair the problem areas long before the structure failure, not all of the repairs were completed, including the repairs to the stairway that collapsed. The previously collapsed staircase was also never reported to the city and the tenants were not informed of the serious safety hazard either.
The most terrifying aspect of the aftermath of such building collapses is often the official response to it. In this case, the city’s chief building official said that he saw no reason to cite the building company for a code violation since they took action to finally fix the damage after the structure failure. Additionally, the chief building official made a point to state that the city’s responsibility for safety inspections ends once the building is constructed, unless a resident complains about code enforcement. This comment underlines a big problem with unseen issues like dry rot. How is a tenant supposed to know that there is such a dangerous safety issue to report it in the first place?
Brooklyn Building Collapse – July 14, 2015
In this day and age, it seems that making complaints is not enough to ensure that the dangers in a building will be properly addressed. This was the case for the Brooklyn building collapse that occurred on July 14. Three people were injured when a four-story building set for demolition suddenly crumbled to the ground. Authorities were then forced to evacuate three other nearby buildings to evaluate their stability. However sudden the event itself may have been, this building collapse did not occur out of the blue. According to the Department of Buildings, the structure had been the source of multiple complaints over a period of years leading up to the building collapse, with reports citing falling bricks and an unstable façade. Despite the multiple complaints and obvious hazards of this structure over such a long period of time, no efforts were made to shore up the abandoned structure or even cordon off the area around the dangerous building.
An even more horrifying discovery was made after investigators began to look into the causes of this building collapse. Apparently, the demolition crew working on the building had applied for a permit last year, but had never been granted permission to work on the site. Additionally, investigators learned that there had been a partial façade collapse in 2011 which multiple agencies had responded to, only to leave the structure unattended and unmaintained.
If a City does not require inspections, and contractors do not have to report lawsuits to their licensing board, and owners can get by without notifying anyone about widespread hazards within their properties, then how can anyone be assured of their safety? Our current system of maintaining and reinforcing aging or damaged structures is filled with holes that need to be addressed before this summer’s influx of building collapses becomes a more commonplace disaster.