As victims of balcony collapses begin to seek compensation for injuries, there are more lawsuits being filed for negligence and construction defects against property owners or contractors. In some cases, the owners are aware of structural defects or maintenance problems, but still fail to act and maintain a safe balcony. This can be a problem if tenants are not informed about weight limits or structural weaknesses, and then have an accident when visitors congregate on the balcony.
Should Landlords on College Campuses Foresee Balconies Becoming Overloaded?
It can be a common occurrence on college campuses for fraternity houses, apartments and condos to be host to frequent student parties. The tenants are usually students as well, and may not be aware of any structural problems with balconies or terraces. Depending on the weather, it is predictable for students at a party to gather outside on a balcony, and often there are food and drink stations located there.
If a landlord rents to students, it is easily foreseeable that the student would host parties and that more than one or two visitors might gather on a balcony. For this reason, there is at least a duty to warn tenants of possible hazards, and the only sure way to avoid liability is to keep the balcony maintained and in line with local zoning and construction standards. Posting warning signs would also be prudent, so that invitees would also be on notice that there are specific limits to the number of people that a balcony could support.
California Fraternity House Balcony Collapse
A recent balcony collapse at a college fraternity house in California, caused one victim to suffer a broken pelvis as the balcony fell on top of her and pinned her under the debris. The lawsuit names the property management company as well as the owner as defendants, and claim that they knew of the structural weakness caused by rotting wood, but did nothing to correct the problem.
A comment by the property manager shows how some landlords fail to take responsibility for these types of hazards, saying: “…if the tenants knew the balcony was unsafe would they pile so many people on to it? “It appears like a clear misuse of the premise.” While this is may be true, it appears to be a clear attempt to avoid responsibility for maintenance. In other words, ‘they knew our rental properties were hazardous, so they needed to be more careful.’
A property owner cannot avoid liability by shifting the blame to a tenant if the owner was aware of defects before an accident. Regardless of whether a tenant knows of a safety problem (and in this case they repeatedly asked the owner to repair the balcony), the owner continues to have a duty to provide reasonably safe premises. Tenants should of course warn visitors or otherwise protect them from known hazards. In this case, the tenants were not named as defendants in the lawsuit since the victim did not think it was their fault.