As Decks Age, Dangerous Collapses Are on the Rise

With summer just beginning and the Fourth of July quickly approaching, many people are relishing their time outdoors, grilling and lounging with friends and family on outdoor decks. Given the season, it is important for people to be aware of their surroundings and take proper precautions when it comes to deck safety.

The number of deck collapses has been increasing rapidly in recent years, often resulting in personal injuries and even death.

According to the North American Deck and Railing Association, or NADRA, at least 30 people died between 2000 and 2008 as a result of a deck collapse. Typically, when a deck collapses, more than 75 percent of the people on the deck are injured or killed.

Some attribute the rise in deck collapses to the number of older decks in need of repair in the United States. NADRA estimates that there are 40 million decks in the U.S. that are over 20 years old. The concern with older decks is:

  • Many were built before new code regulations were established, which made decks uniformly safer.
  • Many are weaker after experiencing the weather for many years.
  • Some have not been properly maintained over the years.

Most often, a deck will collapse because it is not properly attached to the building when it was built. A piece of wood, called a ledger, is used to fasten decks to buildings. It is critical that decks are properly attached to avoid unexpected collapses.

Occasionally, decks are attached to houses using only nails, rather than a more substantial attachment, such as screws or bolts. Surprisingly, it was permissible to use only nails to attach decks to buildings until 2003. Even when an appropriate screw is used to attach a deck, problems arise when they are not attached to a solid portion of the building.

The worst deck collapse in the United States occurred in Chicago in the summer of 2003. A third-floor porch collapsed, destroying the porches on the floors below as well. Almost 50 people were standing on the deck when it collapsed, and 13 people were killed. The owners of the building had to pay over $100,000 to settle claims against the property and over $4,000 because of code violations discovered on other properties thereafter.

Back and Spinal Injuries Caused by Deck Collapses

The injury rate after deck collapses is extremely high, often resulting in back and spinal injuries that can cause permanent damage.

According to the University of Florida, back injuries account for 37 percent of the injuries incurred following falls from heights. The majority of those injuries, 52 percent, are sprains or strains.

Falls from significant heights often result in spinal cord injuries. The proportion of spinal cord injuries due to falls has increased over time, according to the Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention, Care and Cure. In 2009, falls were the second leading cause of spinal cord injuries, at 26.7 percent, behind only vehicular accidents at 42.1 percent.

Injuries to the spinal cord result in weakness and sensory loss at the point of injury and below. Consequently, symptoms experienced after a spinal cord injury vary greatly depending on the location of the injury, becoming more severe the higher the injury. For instance, spinal cord injuries of the chest or lower back may result in paraplegia, or paralysis of the legs and lower body; whereas, injuries near the neck may result in quadriplegia or paralysis of all four limbs.

Common symptoms from spinal cord injuries include paralysis, numbness and loss of control over certain bodily functions.

Take Steps to Ensure Your Deck Is Safe

Experts suggest a number of ways to ensure a deck is properly secured and maintained, including:

  • Inspect the deck regularly, particularly if it is older
  • Examine support posts, looking for parts that are rotting or splitting
  • Check all fasteners, such as screws and bolts, for rust or corrosion
  • Look at the attachment points between the deck and the house

If a deck is moving abnormally or is missing screws or shows signs of rot or corrosion, it may be in distress and require maintenance.

If you are injured in a deck collapse, the homeowner or business property owners may be liable for your injuries. Consulting with an experienced personal injury lawyer can ensure your rights are protected.