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Fatal fall from deck leads to $900,000 settlement

Deck in Lynchburg

Deck in Lynchburg

The family of a young man who fell to his death after breaking through a deck railing has recovered $900,000 from the owner of the home he was visiting in Lynchburg.

Parents of Peter Thornton plan to use most of the proceeds to fund a scholarship established in Peter’s name at Virginia Military Institute, his father’s alma mater.

A lawyer for the parents, Roanoke’s Gregory D. Habeeb, said the case points out the dangers of neglected porches and decks.

An extended family on a beach vacation in North Carolina this summer plunged nearly 10 feet when the deck at a beach house gave way under their feet. Twenty-four people were injured, five seriously.

Corroded fasteners were blamed for the collapse.

In Thornton’s case, it was a defective railing that failed, according to Habeeb. Thornton was visiting a friend in the Boonsboro area of Lynchburg on Jan. 18, 2014. The friends walked onto the deck late that evening and Thornton leaned against the rail.

When the railing broke, Thornton fell 12 feet and struck his head on concrete, Habeeb said.

Later, it was clear the railing had been allowed to seriously deteriorate, he said. Another part of the railing was missing the top rail, he added.

“In hindsight, when you look at it, the deck was in pretty bad shape,” Habeeb said.

A lawsuit was filed, but never litigated, the lawyer said. The two men on the deck were friends, and their families were friends.

The homeowner had $1 million in coverage. Potential defenses included an open-and-obvious defect and Thornton’s contributory negligence, Habeeb said. The defendant was represented by John D. McGavin of Fairfax, according to court records.

Matthew W. Broughton of Roanoke also represented the Thorntons.

The claim was settled for $900,000 through negotiation, Habeeb said. A final order was entered Aug. 13, court records show.

Last year, Habeeb’s firm helped recover $2.3 million for a family of six injured in a 2012 deck collapse near Lynchburg. Medical bills exceeded $500,000 in the accident.

The 2012 deck failure was more typical of this type of casualty, Habeeb said. A ledger board – the part of the deck frame that runs along the main building – was not securely attached. When it separated from the building, the deck dropped like a trap door.

“I obviously think we’re going to see a lot more of these cases,” Habeeb said. He pointed to an apartment building boom in college towns, but he said older structures may be more at risk. Older buildings are grandfathered into code compliance, even though they may not meet modern standards, he said.

Those modern standards often call for deck “legs” – the stout vertical timbers that hold up the frame – against the main building as well as on the deck’s outer edge. With legs against the house, the ledger board does not have to support all the weight on the deck’s inner edge.

The duty is on landlords and property owners to make sure the decks and porches are secure, Habeeb said.

“Most of the defects in decks are below the deck. They are not visible to people using the deck,” he said.

“I’m not sure landlords are proactively addressing these existing defective decks,” he added.

Injuries from prior deck collapses have produced substantial recoveries in Virginia.

A Portsmouth jury awarded $1.5 million to a 28-year-old man with permanent ankle injuries from a 1999 deck collapse.

A 2005 Virginia Beach collapse led to a $375,000 settlement, according to a published report.

A deck drop that injured a number of Virginia Commonwealth University students in 2008 led to reported settlements totaling $252,000.

Around 30 Washington and Lee University students were injured in a 2010 deck collapse. As many as 80 people were on the deck when it failed, reports said at the time.

Updated Sept. 4 to note Broughton’s role.

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