When a catastrophic accident, such as a building collapse, occurs, it is easy to point fingers and assign blame. However, getting to the bottom of who is actually at fault is another matter.
What Does It Mean To Be At Fault?
Being at fault is another way of saying being responsible. In the case of an accident like the recent New York City garage collapse, the person or business that caused the building to be unsafe is at fault. However, things are as clear as having a single entity responsible.
Many factors contribute to a building’s collapse. For example, there could be faulty material, poor construction, and lax oversight and maintenance. However, in this case, early signs point to more than one underlying cause, including the parking structure’s age and the vehicles’ weight on it.
A legal determination of fault hinges on three main points: duty, breach, and cause of injury.
Duty of Care
A duty of care is a responsibility to provide a certain level of goods or services that does not cause harm. A relationship between the two parties that establishes a duty of care must be in place. For example, a contractor has a duty of care to build a stable structure.
Breach of Duty
The duty of care must have been breached to assign fault. In the above example, if the contractor used inferior products or cut corners during construction, she breached that duty and could be at fault.
Finally, the breach must be what caused injuries. If the poor construction in this example caused a building to collapse, then the contractor’s breach resulted in the damages, and she is at fault.
Who Is At Fault When a Building Collapses?
Determining liability in a building collapse is a complex process. Many people, businesses, and suppliers contribute to initial construction. Additionally, buildings have a long life span, during which owners and management companies are responsible for required maintenance and proper use. Finally, inspectors and permitting departments are responsible for ensuring buildings are safe by performing visual inspections and responding to complaints.
That leaves a long list of individuals and businesses that may hold at least partial responsibility for a building collapse.
The contractors could be responsible if they knowingly cut corners during construction; this may include using inferior products, not properly reinforcing structures, or leaving off safety features.
A supplier who knowingly provides subpar products during construction compromises the structural integrity of the building. Components such as lumber, concrete, and steel are rated for maximum load-bearing capacities. When a lower quality or density is used, it can fail.
Owners and Management Companies
Building owners and managers must maintain the structure n safe operating condition. This includes:
- Complying with inspections and recommendations for improvement
- Completing maintenance and repairs
- Responding to complaints about building integrity
Inspectors and Building Officials
Municipalities, including New York City, have building departments that handle complaints and concerns about building integrity. Officials in these departments are responsible for responding to concerns by inspecting buildings and determining safety. They also check all new construction for compliance with codes.
A failure to properly inspect or respond to a concern could mean building department officials are liable for a building collapse.
How Is Fault Determined in a Building Collapse?
Someone claiming a company or material supplier is at fault is not enough to establish responsibility. In most serious accidents, such as a building collapse, an accident investigation will determine who is at fault. This will examine construction materials, inspection reports, complaint history, and eyewitness accounts to establish what happened and why.
Who Determines Fault?
Accident investigators are primarily responsible for determining fault. First, they comb through evidence to seek answers after a building collapse. This typically includes physical evidence from inspecting rubble and the remaining structure; pictures, video, and eyewitness accounts of the accident; and any inspection reports or complaints filed against the building management.
For example, in this case, fewer than the allowed number of vehicles were parked on the garage roof. However, the vehicles in question were SUVs, which may have strained the older structure whose certificate of occupancy was initially issued in the 1950s.
Additionally, there were previous reports of problems with this building, including structural concerns about the roof and ceiling. The owner was also cited for improper maintenance of the structure. The preliminary accident investigation shows a partial collapse of all floors and damage to the front and back walls. These facts will all be incorporated into a final determination of responsibility compiled by investigators.
Why Is Determining Fault Important?
Determining the responsible parties in a catastrophic accident is about more than pointing fingers. It is a crucial step in the accident investigation process. In many cases, it is also the start of victims’ healing and grieving processes. Whoever is deemed at fault may be held liable for damages resulting from the accident. This often includes personal injuries, property damage, wrongful death, and loss of use.
For example, in the recent garage collapse, up to 90 vehicles are trapped in the rubble. Experts expect them to be totaled upon retrieval. The owners of those vehicles may seek damages to cover replacement costs and any lost personal items.
The healing process is very complex when people and pets are injured or killed in a building collapse. Recovery from physical injuries may happen within months, but it can take years to heal from the emotional trauma of a catastrophic accident. Additionally, grieving is a long process that may be aided by having someone to hold accountable for an untimely death.
When accident investigators assign fault, they empower victims, who can then begin the healing process. If negligence or malicious intent are uncovered, victims may be able to seek compensation for damages incurred.
Were You Affected by a Building Collapse?
If you or a loved one was affected by a catastrophic accident, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact our offices to request a free case review with one of our knowledgeable New York injury attorneys. We’ll handle the legal aspects of your case so you can focus on your recovery.