What You Need to Know
For personal injury litigators, it is important to understand the factors that can lead to the collapse of a building.
Claims arising from building collapses can encompass multiple areas of law, including premises liability, products liability and more.
Comprehensive investigation is necessary to determine the cause of building collapses. This includes investigation by city, county, and state authorities, as well as by private investigators hired by personal injury attorneys.
The recent tragedy of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse has brought structural integrity to the forefront of public concern. Building collapses are (fortunately) not commonplace, but when they do occur the outcomes can be catastrophic.
For personal injury litigators, it is important to understand the factors that can lead to the collapse of a building. Claims arising from building collapses can encompass multiple areas of law, including premises liability, products liability and more.
Also known as “rust burst,” oxide jacking occurs when the corrosion of metal components (such as rebar) results in the expansion of surrounding structures (such as concrete). This expansion can make the structure unstable.
Weathering is a key factor in the choice of building materials. Stainless steel rebar and rebar that has been treated for corrosion resistance are less prone to oxidation, but they are also more expensive. Structures built with carbon steel rebar may save developers money, but the inferior materials are more likely to become unstable as a result of oxide jacking.
Buildings do not have to be very old to begin sinking into the ground. When a structure is built on unstable terrain (such as soft soil, marshland, etc.), the foundation can begin sinking shortly after construction and get worse as time progresses.
Ground settling is so gradual that changes in the structure are virtually imperceptible. The building may sink only a few millimeters each year. However, the cumulative effect of years of sinking can make the foundation unstable.
If the foundation fails, the building can collapse from the bottom. In large, multistory buildings, this can result in a “pancake effect” where the upper floors slam down on top of the collapsed foundation.
Architects are responsible for the safe design of buildings. There are countless details an architect must account for in building designs, from planning for the superstructure to integrating electrical and plumbing systems.
Building plans are subject to codes and zoning laws, and architects must obtain permits for their designs. Unfortunately, errors on the part of architects can lead to devastating failures of the building after construction is complete.
Some collapses can be attributed to a failure to account for real-world conditions, such as high winds, the effects of icing and thawing, and the high salinity of sea air. Other cases evolve from a focus on form over function, where decorative elements are added at the expense of structural integrity. In the most egregious circumstances, however, architectural defects may arise because architects bribe city inspectors and other officials to look the other way.
Engineers translate architectural designs into workable blueprints. One of the key responsibilities of a civil engineer is to determine what building materials are most suitable for the structure.
When engineers select building materials with safety and the long-term soundness of the structure in mind, buildings can stand for decades and even centuries to come. However, poor choice of materials can lead to a wide range of defects, from corrosion of metal rebar to cracking and deterioration of concrete. All of these problems can lead to a collapse of the building.
From condo complexes to highrises, constructing a large building is a complex and lengthy process. Multiple contractors, subcontractors and construction companies are typically involved.
With so many workers on top of one another, errors may seem like an inevitability. Indeed, lapses in construction can lead to long-term issues that can make the structure more likely to collapse.
Oftentimes the issue that causes the building to collapse may not be apparent until years after the fact. Ideally the damage will be detected before the structure fails, enabling owners to make timely repairs and minimize the risk to occupants.
When construction defects are not caught in time, however, the results can be catastrophic. Thorough investigation may reveal errors on the part of contractors and subcontractors, who can be held liable by both the owner(s) of the building and occupants who are injured or lose loved ones in the collapse.
Two different types of material defects can contribute to building collapses.
First, errors in the design or manufacturing of the material might make the structure unstable. For example, errors in mixing concrete can make it overly porous, allowing moisture infiltration that degrades the concrete and makes it prone to instability.
Second, the material selected for the structure may be unsuitable for local conditions. More porous concrete, for example, should never be used in cold environments where it is subject to consistent icing and thawing.
Although responsibility for the selection of building materials rests with the parties involved in construction, liability may not be confined to engineers, builders and others. Manufacturers and others in the chain of commerce may also be liable for defects.
The classic adage “follow the money” certainly applies in the investigation of building collapses. Many issues that result in structural failures can be chalked up to the decision to save a buck. This decision can take many forms, from hiring an unqualified or inexperienced architect, engineer, or contractor to purchasing cheaper materials to even malfeasance.
Comprehensive investigation is necessary to determine the cause of building collapses. This includes investigation by city, county and state authorities, as well as by private investigators hired by personal injury attorneys.
As we have seen with the Surfside condo collapse, structural failure is a complex issue that requires highly technical expert testimony to pinpoint. Attorneys litigating claims involving building collapses are advised to consider all possible causes—including architectural, engineering and construction defects, as well as the use of substandard and unsuitable materials—to determine how the structure failed and who may be liable.
About the author
Patrick Daniel is the founder of and managing partner of Patrick Daniel Law in Houston. He has achieved numerous awards and honors, including recognition as one of America’s Top 100 High-Stakes Litigators in the areas of construction, products liability and wrongful death litigation. The Patrick Daniel Law team recently traveled to Surfside, Florida, to volunteer at the site of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse.