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On Sunday, August 1, a balcony collapse during a party at an Austin townhouse caused dozens of people to fall two stories to the ground. Many of the party goers were hurt and had to be sent to area hospitals, though none with life-threatening injuries. The building inspectors and police in Austin are now investigating, to try to determine the exact reason the balcony gave way.
During a party on Sunday night, at one point, about 30 people crowded out onto the 400 square-foot balcony, which was more than the weight it was constructed to hold, according to the American-Statesman. The paper later determined that there were no documents on file with the city indicating that the necessary building permits to construct the balcony had been obtained. The building's owner and the contractor can be held responsible for the violation. City code compliance officials are still trying to determine who completed the work on the structure.
A failure to obtain the proper building permit opens a property owner up to several kinds of potential liability issues. First, the city will likely charge the homeowner and contractor with violations for the failure to obtain permits. Second, the lack of inspections could allow shoddy or improper construction to go unnoticed. In this case, the Statesman reported it was not clear what supported the balcony where it was attached to the townhouse. This juncture appeared to be the point where the structure collapsed. "Just looking at the building, it didn't look right," Austin Fire Department Lt. Randy Elmore said. "It looked like it should have had more support."
Third is the evidence of negligence that the legal violation can be used to prove. A failure to follow the law can be used as evidence of the failure, in this case of the homeowner, to exercise reasonable care for an injured party's physical safety. Any suit against the homeowner in this case would certainly look to the failure to get the proper permit as evidence of negligence toward the guests injured at the party.
In Austin, the homeowner and his guests were fortunate, no one was killed or sustained life threatening injuries after this balcony collapse. Some San Franciscans remember a similar incident in 1996, when a deck collapsed during a party, killing one and seriously injuring five others.