Written in Blood: How Building Code Violations Cause Deadly Accidents

“Building codes are written in blood.” That’s more than just a trite saying. The codes and regulations determining how structures must be built often trace their roots to major disasters that took dozens or hundreds of lives. 

Since regulations like the California Building Code were first put into place, tragic accidents have become significantly less common. As a result, though, following building codes correctly can seem unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming in the modern day. After all, fatal accidents happen so much less now, so why bother with all these precautions? 

Unfortunately, when builders and property owners neglect to comply with their buildings’ safety regulations, they risk occupants’ lives. Here’s why compliance with current building codes is so important and what you can do if you’ve been hurt or lost a loved one to an unsafe structure. 

Why Building Codes Exist

The fundamental purpose of a building code is threefold: to ensure that structures are built with safe materials, designed to stand up to local conditions, and provide occupants with protection from reasonably foreseeable disasters. 

The earliest codes in the Western world can be traced back to London and Boston, which created “building acts” intended to prevent the risk of city-wide fires. These laws became reasonably common in larger cities but often differed significantly between locations. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that broad state and federal codes came into existence. 

Initially, these regulations provided general guidelines on safe materials and things to avoid. In the century since, they have expanded significantly. Why? The answer is usually that a serious disaster led the families of its victims to campaign for more rules. For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster led to significantly stricter regulations on fire safety in commercial spaces. Similarly, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the Sylmar Quake of 1971 spurred substantial revisions to California building regulations to prevent buildings from collapsing in future disasters. 

These tactics have worked. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), US locations that follow and enforce modern building codes are predicted to save $132 billion over the next 20 years by avoiding damage during natural disasters. Furthermore, they have already saved thousands of lives. 

The Risks Posed by Building Code Violations

California’s statewide building code is one of the most thorough in the nation. However, that doesn’t mean every structure is built according to code. Many businesses and homes have significant violations that could pose serious health and safety risks to their occupants. Some of the most common code violations and their risks include:

  • Missing Safety Features: If a business or landlord fails to keep smoke detectors in working order, occupants may not have enough time to escape the structure if a fire starts. Other critical safety features that pose obvious risks if they aren’t functional include CO2 detectors, sprinkler systems, and handrails. 
  • Faulty Vents: Air vents are an under-appreciated element of many structures. If a building isn’t correctly vented, potential risks range from moisture buildup and mold issues to Legionnaire’s Disease. 
  • Incorrect Wiring: One of the most common code violations is also the hardest to spot. If a landlord or business takes “shortcuts” when wiring a property, the issue may not be spotted until the faulty electrical systems cause a serious fire or electrocute someone. 
  • Structural Problems: Structural issues can also be difficult to identify before they cause problems. Common structural issues include using unsafe or insufficient materials when building, failing to properly consider anchor points, and ignoring floor weight limits. All of these issues can lead structures to collapse during fires, high winds, or earthquakes, potentially killing those inside. 

These issues are far more common than most people realize. According to the Common Code Noncompliance Survey Report, more than 60% of building inspectors spot violations in all types of new construction, from commercial buildings to homes and apartments. Older properties are even more likely to have issues with insufficient maintenance or outdated standards. 

Who’s Liable for Injuries Caused by Building Code Violations?

When someone is injured or killed because of a building code violation, several parties may be liable. These include: 

  • Architects and engineers: The parties that produce the design for a structure must take reasonable care to ensure the blueprints follow all appropriate building codes. If the structure’s design is fundamentally flawed, they may be liable for resulting harm. 
  • Contractors and subcontractors: The parties that construct a building must follow the plans and specifications carefully. Failing to do so may make them liable for the harm their negligence causes. Furthermore, if a contractor identifies flaws in a design and doesn’t bring them up to the owner, it may share liability with the designer. 
  • Material manufacturers: In some cases, code violations aren’t caused by the designer or contractors but by the parties that provided the materials. If a business offers a faulty product, it is responsible for the harm it caused under California’s strict liability rules. For example, if a lumber supplier provides wood with hidden termite damage, it would likely share liability for the structure’s collapse with the contractor, which should have spotted the flaws. 
  • Property owners: Once a structure is built, the owner is responsible for keeping it up to code. Failing to do so, such as ignoring routine maintenance on fire detectors or neglecting termite problems, makes the owner liable for the harm the building’s occupants suffer.

If you’ve lost a loved one because a building was not up to code, you may have a wrongful death claim against any of these parties. You can learn more about your options by scheduling your consultation with the wrongful death attorneys at Fiore Achermann. Our skilled personal injury and premises liability lawyers can help you determine whether you have a case and seek compensation for the loss of your loved one.