Using Building Code Violations to Win Your Personal Injury Case

Learn how building code violations can help you get fair compensation after an injury on someone else’s property. Evidence of code violations will support your claim.

Home and business owners aren’t automatically responsible for accidents and injuries on their property. Before you see a dime from their insurance company, you must prove the property owner’s negligence created an unsafe condition that led to your injury.

Proving the property owner was negligent can be difficult, especially when the owner says your carelessness caused your injury.

Demonstrating that the property owner violated state or local building codes can be compelling evidence of the owner’s negligence.

Here’s where we unpack what you should know about building codes, and how code violations can help you win fair injury compensation from the insurance company.

Building Codes Safeguard the Public

Building codes exist all over the United States to help safeguard the public. Builders must follow state and municipal building codes during construction, with inspections scheduled at different stages of construction to ensure all building codes are met.

As buildings age, the owners are generally required to maintain the property “according to code” to ensure safe conditions for occupants and visitors.

Today, most jurisdictions follow the International Building Code (IBC) standard. IBC codes are updated every three years to preserve public health and safety.

The IBC references other important codes, including:

Building Inspectors and Code Violations

Many jurisdictions have code enforcement departments to inspect buildings. Depending on the area’s population, a code enforcement department can be one person in a rural town, up to hundreds of inspectors in a major metropolitan area.

Inspectors rely on codebooks, which should be available to the public. You can find them at your local town hall, records building, or city planning department. Many larger jurisdictions have their building codes online.

Find your area on this Building Code Contact List by State.

Keep in mind that individual cities and towns may have building codes in addition to the state codes. A city’s codes cannot preempt (override) the state’s codes by being more lenient, but local building codes may be stricter than the state codes.

What do building inspectors look for?

Building codes set out the standards a commercial property owner or landlord must maintain to ensure the safety of occupants and visitors. Inspectors commonly look to determine if the buildings and structures on a property are:

  • Built properly, with the right materials
  • Structurally sound
  • Reasonably clean and sanitary
  • Built and maintained with proper exits in case of fire

When a code inspector checks a property, their job is to make sure the structure and grounds comply with all applicable codes. If not, the owner may receive a warning, citation, or red flag to repair the violation.

In a personal injury claim, the existence of a related building code violation can be solid proof of negligence. The violation publicly highlights a dangerous condition. When an inspector issues a citation, it all but cements the property owner’s liability.

Case Summary: Code Violations Cause Deadly Nightclub Fire

In February 2003, one of the deadliest nightclub fires in American history left 100 people dead and 230 injured.

The fire started at the Station Nightclub when a live band set off fireworks during a performance, igniting foam insulation installed over and around the stage.

Multiple injury and wrongful death lawsuits were filed, including lawsuits against the nightclub, the band, and the foam insulation manufacturer. In 2010, the combined lawsuits settled in Federal Court for $176 million.

Building code violations responsible for the death or injury of more than two-thirds of the nightclub patrons included the use of non-fire-retardant polyurethane foam and the use of pyrotechnics inside the building.

At the time of the fire, new buildings with occupancy over 300 were required to have sprinkler systems. The Station was exempt, because it was built before the sprinkler codes went into effect, and only had poorly located portable fire extinguishers.

As a result of the Station fire, all nightclubs and other entertainment venues must now have sprinkler systems, no matter when they were built.

Additional changes to Rhode Island building codes for clubs and similar venues include rules for exit size and locations, and mandatory staff training for crowd management in case of emergency.

Code Violations Support a Strong Injury Claim

Building code violations often come to the attention of code inspectors through complaints filed by tenants, their visitors, and people conducting legitimate business on a property. Violations often reflect problems such as:

  • Broken staircases
  • Worn or damaged elevators
  • Missing or broken handrails
  • Accessibility problems
  • Crumbling ceilings
  • Inadequate or broken fire protection, sprinklers, extinguishers, or fire exits
  • Substandard electrical wiring

When you’ve been injured on someone else’s property, you bear the burden of proof to convince the insurance company that the property owner is to blame for your losses.

Legal Elements of Negligence

You’ll need to show the four elements of negligence to convince the claims adjuster why the property owner or manager is liable for your injuries.

The critical elements of negligence you must show are:

  1. Duty of Care: The property owner had a duty to avoid causing harm to others, and to take reasonable steps to keep the property safe.  Example: A shopping mall owner has a duty to perform regular escalator maintenance.
  2. Breach of Duty: The property owner breached their duty by doing something wrong or failing to do what any reasonable owner would do in the same circumstances. Example: A hotel breached its duty by blocking the emergency exit doors in the ballroom.
  3. Cause: The property owner’s breach of their duty of care is the proximate cause of your injuries. Example: You suffered a broken arm when a building’s stair rail gave way, causing you to fall.
  4. Damages: You have verifiable injuries, supported by your medical records, lost wage statements, and other documentation. Example: You received a $3,200 bill from the hospital’s emergency department for the treatment of your broken wrist.

If a building code violation caused your injury, you must get solid evidence of the violation to prove the property owner’s liability.

Begin Collecting Evidence at the Scene

You’ll want to file a complaint with the local code enforcement office, but don’t wait to start gathering critical evidence of the code violation and your injuries.

The property owner may have been in violation for years but will hurry to cover their tracks once someone is injured. Get your evidence before it disappears.

  • Report the Accident: Tell the property owner or the person in charge that you were hurt by a hazardous condition on the property. Have someone call 911, if needed. If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital, see your doctor as soon as possible. Tell every medical provider you see exactly when, where, and how you were injured.
  • Get Names: Get the name of the owner and any employees or renters on the property. Be sure you have the complete street address for the property where you were hurt.
  • Take Pictures: Take photographs or video of the accident scene, especially the hazardous condition that caused your injuries. You can’t have too many pictures of the code violation, from close-up and further away. Get pictures of your wounds, torn clothing, blood on the floor, broken glass, and anything that tells the tale of your injuries.
  • Talk to Witnesses: Get the name and contact information of anyone who saw your accident or knew of the dangerous condition before you were injured, like other tenants. If you have a witness willing to write out what they saw, ask them to sign and date their statement.
  • Get Insurance Information: Ask for the owner’s insurance company’s name and contact information. Verify the name of the insured, for example, if it’s different from the business name.

If you were injured at a rental property, go door to door and get the contact information of people living with the same violation. Even if they’ve never reported it, or were never injured, just having their support will be very helpful when negotiating your insurance settlement.

Contacting Code Enforcement Officials

If you’ve been injured on commercial or residential property, and believe your injury was a direct result of a building code violation, contact your local code enforcement department and ask to speak directly with an inspector.

If you’ve already done some research, and know your injury was a direct result of a specific code violation, tell the inspector which chapter and sections are in violation. Describe your injury and tell the inspector about the details of the accident.

Let the inspector know if you found out that others had previously reported the violation. The inspector does not want to be in a position where they’ve received multiple complaints about a code violation, but never visited the property to investigate the claims.

When the code inspector arrives, explain how the accident happened, and how you were injured. If you fell from a broken staircase, show the inspector where you fell and even what step you fell on, or where the handrail is missing.

If the inspector issues a warning, a notice of violation, or red flags the property, make sure you get a copy. If you can’t get one immediately, you can pick up a copy at the code enforcement department.

Track Resolution of the Code Violation Complaint

Follow up on what happens after a warning or citation is issued. You can check with the building code department and the local municipal court to track it. If there’s a conviction, it will be there.

Collect all available documentation to use as leverage in your settlement negotiations, or as evidence in a lawsuit.

Although a citation issued to a property owner is beneficial for your case, a conviction for that violation is even better. A claims adjuster can’t argue with a court conviction on a county or state building code violation – it proves negligence. It shifts the argument from questions of liability, to the amount of compensation.

Code Violation Cases Can be Difficult

A building code violation is not always cut and dry. You can read through the current codes for your location, but they might not apply to your case. Even the definition of “building” can be hotly debated in some code violation injury claims.

To make it even more complicated, the property where you were injured may be “grandfathered” meaning it was built before the existing codes were in effect and doesn’t have to comply. In some states, rental units in single-family homes aren’t subject to the same codes as newer apartment buildings.

If you’ve been badly injured on someone else’s property, you owe it to yourself to talk to an experienced personal injury attorney.

An experienced attorney can gather the evidence you won’t be able to get on your own, like property records, prior violations and penalties, surveillance footage from public buildings, and much more.

There’s too much at stake to try handling a serious injury case on your own. Most injury attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation.

There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a skilled attorney can do for you.

Building Code Violation Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>