Decks and Lanais add Value, but Carry Risk for Landlords

A deck or lanai can be a valuable selling point for a property. They can be a big part of a tenant’s lifestyle and an important entertainment area for a home, apartment or condominium. They can also be a big differentiator for some restaurants, nightclubs and other public venues. But these structures attract people, and people can strain structures to the breaking point. So while decks and lanais can add value, they also bring some serious potential liability for landlords, too, if something should go wrong.

With a Name Like Shucker’s…

In June of 2013, about 100 people were present on the deck of Shucker’s, a restaurant and sports bar overlooking the picturesque Miami Intercoastal, when the entire deck collapsed without warning, dropping them into the water. Some 33 people people were injured, two critically. A number of lawsuits have been filed, which are winding their way through the court system. The owner’s damages, in this case, are compounded by a lengthy business interruption, as rebuilding hasn’t even started yet, due to the ongoing investigation.

It’s not just commercial property owners who need protection against the possibility of a deck collapse, and the liability it can bring. In a recent case in Salem, Massachusetts, a young recently-returned military veteran, age 23, was visiting some friends and they went out on the deck for a beer. Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the beams securing the railing was never properly nailed in place by the subcontractor responsible for building the deck. Several people were out on the lanai, and at least one of them was leaning on the railing. The railing collapsed, and the young veteran fell 30 feet to the ground. His injuries left him a paraplegic.

He filed suit not just against the landlord, but also against the architect the landlord had hired to inspect the construction, as well as the general contractor and subcontractor who built the house and deck, respectively.

Upon investigation, the subcontractor admitted that it was at fault since its own worker admitted failing to nail the key beam in place. The architect originally denied responsibility, claiming that he had been brought on as a consultant only. Discovery, however, unearthed a document demonstrating that the architect had, indeed, certified that he had inspected the work done and that it had been done satisfactorily.

The accident victim in this case had suffered future lost income and additional medical expenses worth at least $2.2 million, and that was in compensatory damages alone. However, since everyone involved in the construction of the home had some responsibility in the chain of events leading to the accident, each of them, in conjunction with their respective liability insurance carriers, wound up contributing a minimum six figures (in the case of the architect) to a total settlement of $4,600,000.

In another case, a 2007 deck collapse in Wichita, Kansas, severely injured several people, and killed one. Investigation revealed that the deck was only secured to the main structure with a few nails and not properly bolted to the base of the house. In this case, after some back and forth, defendants and their insurers ultimately settled for a total of $2.18 million.

In each case, a deck collapse resulted in seven-figure liability – even in a non-fatality accident injuring just one person. And as the Shucker’s and Witchita incidents demonstrate, deck collapses can easily involve multiple victims, increasing the potential damages substantially.

In each case, as well, the accidents occurred well after the structures were built. Landlords and Contractors should ensure that they have an adequate amount of liability coverage, including an umbrella policy.  Short of not having enough coverage, the legal process will eventually force the funds from the liable parties. This can mean selling off properties, depleting liquid assets and even having future income garnished to pay off the damaged parties.

If you have questions about the proper protection for your property call ACBI at 203-259-7580 or visit our website.

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