Residential Garage Doors
Personal Injury Claims
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By Michael Panish
Door Expert Witness
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Over the past 15 years, I have been involved in over 100 residential garage
door injury cases and I am generally retained as the door expert almost
equally by plaintiff and defense. I provide an unbiased neutral assessment
of every claim.
The following article is derived from various common conditions that have
led to a claim. Reviewing some of the most recent resolved cases has prompted
me to write this article in an attempt to provide some substantial information
to others contemplating litigation. It is almost impossible to include
every variation, nuance, or combination of events pertaining to garage
door injuries in this short article. The cases discussed in this article
are based upon multiple previous claims that are similar in nature. I
am repeatedly contacted by attorneys describing the same kind of injuries
involving garage doors. It is not unusual for my office to have multiple
active claims with very similar circumstances. If you are an attorney
considering taking a potential garage door injury case, it is probable
that I have previous experience with a similar or identical situation
to your potential claim.
Garage Door injuries pertaining to rental properties:
Amputations of toes and fingers are probably the most common garage door
injury attributed to residential garage doors. It has been my experience
as the retained door expert that the majority of cases that involve garage
door related amputations occur in rental properties.
Who is responsible? Why are so many claims from rental properties?
- The landlord has failed to inspect the overall condition of the rental
property prior to or during tenancy.
- The landlord does not know, or care about the condition of the garage door.
Because the property was purchased to be torn down for future development,
current circumstances have created development delays so the property
was rented to a short term tenant.
- The property was inherited from elderly relatives that formerly lived there.
The new owners are not professional landlords, and never thought that
any defects of the property existed or were important.
- The garage door operator needed replacing, but the landlord did not want
to spend the money or effort as the tenant was not using the garage to
park cars, only store household goods.
- The garage door does not have current compliant safety devices installed
or appropriate hardware such as an exterior door handle to move the door
up or down.
- Improperly maintained or deferred maintenance because of cost.
- Section 8 or low rent tenancy.
- Tenants have inappropriately used the garage door or created damage to
the door and opener.
- Parental supervision of tenant children is lacking.
- Tenant did not pay the electric bill and the automatic garage door opener
- The owner has hired a management company that is responsible for oversight
and maintenance, and does not want to provide the appropriate maintenance
due to cost.
- A management company provides inappropriate repairs by unskilled and untrained workers.
Every garage door must be properly balanced to operate safely
Many amputations of fingers and toes have occurred as a result of an improperly
balanced garage door. These cases are often the result of limited interaction
with a seldom used sectional or single panel garage door. I have been
retained on many cases where a tenant only used the garage door a couple
of times prior to sustaining an injury, but had been living in the property
for a few years.
In other claims, tenants attempting to exit the garage door as a pedestrian
have had the door violently slam down on top of their head and neck or
it landed on their feet, breaking bones or trapping a couple of toes,
smashing them beyond recognition. Fingers have been crushed or cut off,
and hands have also become crushed between the meeting sections of a sectional
garage door as the door rapidly descends because of improperly tensioned,
broken or disconnected springs.
Tenants, attempting to fix a garage door on their own have also suffered
severe injuries to all parts of the body. One tenant actually became entangled
in the trolley release cord, and fell off of the ladder she was using,
hanging herself in the process. Tenants often blame the landlord for their
injury because the owner failed to make timely repairs. Sometimes, that
blame is legitimate, as multiple requests to have something fixed have
gone unanswered. Other times, the tenant was acting without allowing the
landlord a reasonable amount of time to have the door repaired. Regardless,
most garage door repairs should be made by qualified personnel or trained
professional garage door service providers.
In many amputation claims, disconnected or malfunctioning automatic garage
door openers have meant that users have had to manually open or close
the garage doors. Many of the people that have become injured were unaware
that the door was improperly balanced prior to their incident because
they generally relied upon the automatic controller to open and close
the door for them. In some cases, no handle on the exterior of the door
was installed. When the door was manually pushed or pulled, the tenant
was unable to control the movement of the door, and inadvertently reached
between pinch points (mating locations of individual sectional panels)
of the moving door.
In almost every injury case, the landlord has been included in the blame
for the incident. In some of those cases it was determined that the tenants
had abused and misused the garage door systems creating their own unsafe
condition. Some of the garage door injuries were directly attributed to
deferred observations and no professional maintenance on the part of the
ownership, while others were due to improper installation issues and bad
service providers. In most of these claims, the dangerous condition of
the garage door is due to deferred maintenance, missing hardware, improper
spring adjustments, failed springs or cables, or defective automatic door
Basic components of a garage door system:
There are many different types of garage doors found in residential properties.
In antique homes, hinged carriage doors are often found. Sliding barn
type doors were once common. As hardware was developed, pivot hinges and
stretch springs allowed single panel doors to be used. Single panel overhead
doors, once built on-site, have all but been replaced by factory supplied
sectional doors. Sectional doors are probably the most common type currently
installed in the United States. Sectional doors have a variety of benefits
that single panel overhead doors lack. Sectional doors offer a variety
of options in design, flexibility of installation, insulation, choice
of materials, and style that were not common in the past.
Sectional doors generally employ one of two types of counterbalance systems
to motivate them. In certain geographic areas where cold temperatures
are common, tensioned stretch springs are frequently installed. They assist
the operator (manually or mechanically) to allow the sectional door to
open and close without any stress to the system. A more modern and robust
common system includes torsion springs attached to a rotating rod with
wire cables and pulleys.
In most garage doors spring tension is responsible for smooth operation
of the garage door. The springs stretch and retract or coil and uncoil
as different positions of the garage door are reached. In general, garage
doors have the most tension on the springs when the door is fully closed.
A fully opened door has little or no tension on the power assist springs.
A properly tensioned and balanced sectional residential garage door should
remain stationary approximately mid-point in its path of travel. It may
drift slightly up or down, but it should remain relatively neutrally buoyant.
In order for a manual garage door to become an automatic garage door many
of the same basic spring components must be properly installed and functioning.
For a more comprehensive discussion of how sectional garage doors work, visit
www.constructionwitness.com and read several other articles about overhead and sectional garage doors.
If a residential garage door is properly balanced, it is easy to attach
an automatic door operator to assume the task of opening and closing the
garage door. No properly adjusted and functioning automatic garage door
controller should be able to overcome the forces of a defectively operating
unbalanced garage door.
Basic safety devices available for residential garage doors:
Most new garage door operators include several safety devices to protect
all users. In most basic systems currently sold there are at least two
automatic safety systems to protect the public from being crushed by the
One basic function includes an
automatic reverse of the door when in the opening or closing cycle. If the door encounters
obstructive forces, it generally will stop and move in the opposite direction
of travel. In the closing mode, the downward force is often checked by
placing a small stuffed animal on the threshold floor of the garage. The
motor controller has a field adjustable force control that is set to react
when a soft obstruction, such as a teddy bear is slightly compressed.
This simulates the potential obstruction that may be caused by a small
child in the path of the downward door travel.
The second safety device, commonly in usage are
photo electric beams. These beams when properly located and integrated across the full width
of the garage threshold will not allow the door to close if the beam is
broken by something in the threshold path of travel of the door.
From the end user's perspective, a basic residential automated garage
door should operate without concern due to all of the available safety
products. From a professional installer's perspective, there are numerous
requirements that need to be addressed for an automatic operator to function safely.
The difference in obligation between the two is expressed in the installation
manual vs the owner's manual. Normally, there are several systems
that need to be calibrated by the installer that the homeowner will never
have any reason to interact with. That is also one of the reasons why
a professional service provider should inspect and maintain an automatic
operator on a routine annual basis. Initially, the garage door operator
installer sets system parameters that assure safe operation of the automatic
garage door operator. These systems need to be checked and verified for
continued safe operation of the door operator by a professional trained
Maintenance and homeowner obligations differ from professional service providers
How garage doors are professionally installed, maintained and evaluated
is important. However, homeowners and tenants living in a single family
home or condo should take it upon themselves to determine whether or not
the garage door they use daily is working properly. Generally, no maintenance
is ever done by most homeowners to the average home garage door, until
some component fails requiring professional repairs. Tenants should quickly
communicate with the landlord if problems with the garage door occurs,
unless their lease agreement requires the tenant to maintain the property.
Manufacturers recommend visual inspection of all attached hardware at least
once a month in a residential setting. Professional annual service and
tuning is suggested. In reality, I do not know many homeowners that observe,
inspect, or proactively service their garage doors. Usually, the thing
that promotes maintenance is a failure of some door component. The motor
will stop working, a spring will break, or the garage door gets stuck
in its track. This is not the industry suggested protocol to assure safe
operation and usage of any garage door, but is all too often what takes place.
Landlord responsibilities pertaining to garage doors
(excluding negotiated lease obligations)
In general, a residential rental property landlord has a totally different
level of obligation than a private homeowner. Anytime a property is rented
to a tenant, and several times during the course of the year, a thorough
inspection of all aspects of the rental property should take place. The
requirement for semi-annual inspections should be written into the lease
agreement with the tenant. Landlords should evaluate, document, and photograph
the condition of all systems (including the garage door and automatic
operator) throughout their property prior to renting to a tenant. They
can then compare any change or damage that can be attributed to their
tenant, and verify the need for repairs prior to an injury occurring.
This preliminary observation is beneficial to both the landlord and the
tenant. It quantifies all conditions of the rental property before the
tenant moves in, and can later serve as proof if any damage created by
the tenant is disputed prior to moving out of the property.
The majority of claims pertaining to garage door injuries have occurred
in rental properties. Some reasons for these claims are listed above in
this article. Fewer injury claims involve private homeowners, but these
are generally attributed to new construction defects of the garage door
and operator or improper installation of some garage door component by
an owner or substandard professional service provider.
Mike Panish provides his expert services for all types of overhead doors,
garage doors, roll up doors, and all types of doors (manual and automatic).
He has been retained on over 100 cases specifically pertaining to garage
door related injuries since the year 2000. He is the most frequently retained
expert witness for garage door personal injury and wrongful death claims
across the United States. His expert involvement is for both plaintiff
and defense. He is well known, highly respected, and is established as
the industry expert of choice. He has authored numerous articles pertaining
to garage doors, overhead doors, and all types of doors. For a complete
list of all of his expert services, areas of expertise, and published
articles visit his website at www.constructionwitness.com.