Manual Door Closers
Do you have an open and shut case?
By Michael Panish, Expert Witness
Download PDF of this article here
During the past several years I have been contacted many times regarding
door injury claims related to manual door closers. In response to numerous
inquires asking if I have published any manual door closer articles similar
to the primers I have done on automatic pedestrian doors, I am offering
this article for general information to assist attorneys in determining
potential issues relating to manual door closer mechanisms.
Manual door closers are ubiquitous. We take advantage of their service
on a daily basis without usually noticing that they are in place or that
they are doing their job correctly. It is when something is seriously
wrong with these closers that they become blatantly noticeable and potentially
Manual door closers can be as simple as a spring on an old screen door,
a cannon ball weight on an antique house gate, or as sophisticated as
a modern day hold open device electronically integrated with a smoke or
heat detector connected to a centrally monitored alarm system. This article
will not discuss specific brands, manufacturers or proprietary construction
aspects of these closers, instead it will discuss the most common reasons
that manual door closers can create injury claims. This general discussion
is meant to deal with door or frame surface mounted door closers. While
concealed and center pivot door closers are common in some applications,
the most prevalent and common cause of serious personal injuries pertaining
to manual door closers primarily relate to surface mounted closers. No
discussion of building requirements, code compliance, or ADA parameters
pertaining to door closers will be addressed in this article.
How Do They Work?
In general terms, a manual door closer is designed to assist a person using
a doorway allowing them to smoothly and effectively open and shut a door
without the need to physically return the door to the framed opening themselves.
When properly adjusted, there will be a slight "back-pressure",
giving the user some feedback as to the weight of the door, followed by
a smooth transition as the door glides easily open in front of the user.
Upon reaching the maximum set opening of the door, the closer takes full
control dampening the opening forces, quietly and gently closing the door
until the door is back in the frame, latched and ready for the next user.
Does Cost Affect Their Performance?
There are many price ranges and quality levels of door closers currently
available on the market. In most major commercial installations there
is a tendency to standardize the door closers throughout the facility.
Hotels, hospitals, and shopping malls typically use a heavy duty type
of closer that when properly installed and adjusted should provide many
years of trouble free service to the user. Maintaining all door closers
for proper function and control is essential as with all mechanical devices.
In apartment and office buildings budgetary constraints sometimes lead
to the decision to use a mid range or lower priced closer. Sometimes a
foreign made lower quality "look-alike" closer is substituted
for a domestic made, quality product leading to premature failure of the
closer mechanism and/or erratic and inconsistent operation.
Choosing Your Door Closer
Many architects and designers do not have the foresight or knowledge to
realize that the door closer is one of the most highly used pieces of
equipment in any building, and they often make the wrong decision to use
lower quality products in an effort to mistakenly and inappropriately
save on building material costs. This choice of a lower-cost closer, combined
with poor quality hinges, cheap door locks and other low quality installed
hardware, affects the functions of the lower end door closers. The combination
of all of the lower priced components can multiply the potential for premature
failure of any door system. All door components installed on a door, in
conjunction with the door frame work as a team, and require proper maintenance
and periodic inspections to assure safe and effective operation. The choice
to use the best quality hardware does not always ensure a "bullet-proof"
doorway, but along with proper maintenance and adjustment, the higher
priced quality hardware is money well spent over the long run. In general,
the higher the quality of the individual components, the easier the long
Why Can Door Closers Cause Injuries?
Based on my experience as a door and hardware contractor and forensic expert
for doors and door components, here are the three most common reasons
that injuries occur due to door closer malfunctions. While this is not
an exhaustive list, and there are always new and unique situations, these
issues happen repeatedly and tend to set a trend for how injuries develop.
(1) Door closers are misused, (2) Door closers are misunderstood, (3)
Door closers are improperly installed.
There are a variety of reasons that a facility uses the wrong hardware.
Generally, the selection of the type, brand, style, and capacity are specified
improperly. Cost constraints are often a key reason. In some cases this
is due to the poor direction and discretion of designers or architects.
Many times hardware sales representatives solicit offices of architects
and designers pitching and promoting products that are not always the
correct choice for a specific application. These sales representatives
can convince a designer that their products are universally applicable,
and even though there are often significant problems with these installed
products, architects are very seldom alerted. It is not until the design
firm is included in litigation for an injury that they become concerned
with their methods of choice. Many times architects are protected by a
time warranty parameter that is used in an attempt to limit their contractual
responsibility. Most architects or designers have never worked in the
field of door and hardware sales, nor have they ever participated in product
installation, usage, and long term application. These architects are no
more qualified to specify a door closer product than they would be to
work as a surgeon, just because they designed a medical suite space. Sales
representatives often provide financial incentives, promises of future
project leads, and assurance that their promoted product is as good as
the more expensive hardware. Normally, these promises come with a potential
for a reduced cost, rebate, or perceived savings to the end user. Sometimes,
foreign made door closers are substituted for a higher quality domestic
door closer without the knowledge of the end user. The products may appear
similar, however in reality the promises and warranties made by the sales
representative may not be realized. Sales representatives tend to come
and go, and long before many projects are completed the sales rep has
moved on, leaving the end user ultimately responsible for the problems
that will arise. Incorrect, undersized or oversized closers often get
installed leading to problematic performance at the direction of the uninformed
or ill-informed "design professionals. Lower product costs do not
usually equal higher performance in the long run!
Many times, the primary cause of door closer failures is the direct result
of improperly trained or unsupervised maintenance personnel. Most domestic
door closers are evaluated, tested and approved for sale prior to being
brought to the market. They have gone through stringent testing, have
been rated for longevity, usage in fire, and are warranted for a specified
lifetime. Many manufacturers will offer replacement of products when periodic
maintenance has been performed by trained individuals. Often, the higher
quality door closer bodies have a "built date" stamped onto
the closer body. The more reputable manufacturers rely upon this date
to establish the lifetime of the closer body. This is based on presumed
cycles of usage, correct adjustment, and proper appropriate maintenance.
Appropriate maintenance is necessary to assure the safe and proper functioning
of the door closer mechanism. Many times, individuals charged with maintaining
a facility have little or no training with regard to door hardware, especially
door closers. These workers often make random improper adjustments, create
and compound existing problems due to partial or complete lack of knowledge
and are sometimes the genesis of the ultimate failure of a door closer,
leading to serious bodily injury. In many facilities, these "maintenance"
workers are usually called upon to fix everything from a leaking toilet
to replacing a burned out light bulb. Facility employed maintenance workers
are often paid low wages and are directed by management to attempt to
correct deficiencies when doors do not function correctly. In an effort
to save costs, trained hardware professionals are rarely called in. Many
times, the door closers have been so badly damaged by these inappropriate
and random adjustments that the entire door closer must be replaced. Normally,
replacing or rebuilding the door closer because of improper maintenance
far outweighs the expense of a periodic maintenance program performed
by professionals. There is no substitute for professional evaluation and
maintenance when it comes to assuring the safe, code-compliant, and proper
operation of all doors and door hardware.
Proper Installation of Door Closers
Many modern door closers have universal and unhanded application potentials.
This means that depending upon the desired location of the closer body,
there are generally a variety of possible mounting options. One manufacturer
offers a closer body that can be positioned and safely operate in at least
six different configurations. The door closer body can be installed on
the door itself, or installed on the frame of the doorway. The closer
can be used on either the push or the pull side of the doorway. The closer
body can be installed for "normal regular arm" usage, "parallel
arm" usage, or the reverse of both orientations. The closer can be
adjusted to open the door from 90 degrees to 180 degrees. In some applications,
the door can be adjusted to open as much as 270 degrees all relative to
the closed state of the doorway. In other words, universal installation
makes a closer of this type flexible and beneficial to a commercial door
hardware installer. For some installers this could be seen as the "one
size fits all" closer solution, is generally the most expensive,
and is the standard door closer desired by most door and door hardware
professionals. This type of door closer is normally unavailable to the
average consumer and is sold through professional hardware supply companies.
On the opposite end of the price and flexibility spectrum are the single
use, single-handed door closers. This means that they are only able to
perform one function, and must be ordered either to apply to a right handed
door or a left handed door. These door closers are cheap, have a limited
life, and are not expected to operate in heavy commercial usage. These
door closers are the type that are available to the average consumer and
are sold in the local home improvement or big-box type of hardware supply stores.
In every door closer application, the one basic essential requirement is
that the door closer body and door closer arm be properly and securely
attached to the doorway components. A door closer body and arm operate
the opening and closing actions of the door that they are mounted to,
exerting forces that are controlled by a few different methods. Some closers
operate using spring tensions while others operate using air pistons.
The most elaborate and sophisticated closers function using both spring
tension and hydraulic cylinders. Gearing designed like a "rack and
pinion" system are employed in some devices. Cycling of these devices
creates movement of pistons that push hydraulic fluid into various chambers.
In conjunction with this fluid transfer, springs offer additional assistance
in movement of the various portions of the cycle of the arc swing of the
door. Spring tensions are set based upon door size and weight. Specific
engineered locations for placement of the closer bodies and arms have
been determined by the manufacturers to allow certain features to operate
correctly, consistently and safely. It is mandatory that all manufacturers'
instructions for positioning the door closer body be followed closely,
and with care. Proper positioning of the closer arm is critical as well.
The entire closer mechanism depends on the interaction of all of its individual
components. The main closer body, the arm, attachment brackets and points
of attachment need to work in harmony to assure safe and dependable operation.
It is essential that proper products be used to attach the door closer
and arm to the door and frame. These points of attachment (screws and
bolts) may be regulated by fire codes, life safety codes or other ANSI
(American National Standards Institute) standards. Appropriate screws,
bolts and other needed hardware are engineered for usage with the closer
bodies and arms by the closer manufacturers, and need to be maintained
just as the operable portion of the closers need adjustment and service
Forensic Analysis of a Failed Door Closer
I have been retained as a forensic expert for many law suits pertaining
to serious injuries resulting from malfunctioning or missing door closers.
Often times, the door closer was improperly installed or removed due to
malfunction. In some instances, the usage of non-rated hardware, such
as inappropriate bolts or screws, lead to the closer body or arm simply
shearing off the bolts or screws during normal operation. There are many
unseen aspects engineered into a well designed product that take into
consideration conditions and working forces that the average consumer
or user of these products are never aware of. Most high quality door closers
are sold with a package of screws, bolts and washers engineered to assure
safe installation of the product. The bolt and screw sets have been designed
through calculated engineering to safely handle the load requirements
of the closer action, assuring a safe transfer of operating forces to
the door and frame points of attachment. As mentioned above, foreign made
"look-alike" products are not always built using the same quality
components, manufacturing techniques, or hardware that a well made domestic
product employs. In my observations, more failures of the attachment screws
and fasteners have occurred from foreign products than domestic products.
The foreign products are not always tested to assure the quality of attachment
components. The milling and casting processes of these foreign door closers
are not always up to the higher standards of domestic products. During
forensic analysis debris and other contaminants related to the manufacturing
process have been observed in the chambers of some foreign closers that
Another critical aspect of installation relates to the competency of the
installer. It is required that most screws and bolts have holes pre-drilled
and are tapped using the appropriate size and pitch tap to assure that
the bolts used for holding both the closer and the arm be properly anchored
to the door and frame. Some manufacturers have furnished self drilling
screws for this application, but it has also been my experience that the
self tapping screws do not work as well as a manually tapped thread for
long term attachment. Door closers can have significant weight, and therefore,
it is essential that they are properly installed. I have seen several
cases where the closer simply fell off of the door, striking a user in
the head, shoulders, and arms. While a good quality closer body usually
weighs around five pounds, some closers weigh as much as fifteen to twenty
pounds depending on their function, and are often installed eight to ten
feet off of the ground. When an average user is struck on the head, that
fall can equal forces far in excess of the actual weight of the closer
alone. Remember that basic physics says force is equal to mass times acceleration.
Falling door closers can lead to serious significant injuries. In at least
one case where I was retained as the expert witness, a fallen closer lead
to the death of an elderly individual.
Proper attachment of the closer body and arm also play a key role in determining
closer related injuries. The actual sub surface point of attachment that
the closer and arm must mount to are sometimes undersized or do not have
the structural integrity that is required to tolerate the forces exerted
by the door closer. While it may not seem important to the average user,
a lack of firm and positive attachment of the door closer body and arm
often lead to jerky or staccato operation of a door. The closer body and
arm act as a sort of leveraging force to motivate or move the door through
the arc cycle of the door swing. When door closer components are loosely
attached, there is the possibility that opposite forces imparted during
portions of the closer cycle can create adverse reactions leading to a
"kick back", or unexpected movement of the door. This "kick
back" or unexpected movement has caused several injuries due to the
"surprise" reaction that normally takes place when a person
is confronted with an abnormal expectation. As I stated above in this
article, most people do not even notice the door closer when using a properly
functioning door. Surprise reactions from fighting a malfunctioning door
closer often create overcompensation of bodily movements. Those reactions
have lead to muscle and tendon tears, spinal damage and blunt force trauma
injuries in several cases I have been involved with. Improperly attached,
poorly adjusted or defective closers have also been responsible for significant
injuries as a result of violent unexpected movements that have caused
the door to close so forcefully that the user was unable to clear the
doorway opening prior to being sliced by a rough edge of the affected door.
Forensic Analysis of a Defective Door Closer
Recreating an event in a lab is often difficult if not impossible for the
forensic analysis of the failure modality of a door closer. In order to
effectively recreate a problem that may have occurred resulting in an
injury there are many steps that need to be included and evaluated. Among
the most significant aspects of recreating an alleged problem in a laboratory
type setting is the need to acquire the correct product. In many cases,
you are fortunate to have been able to remove, examine and destructively
evaluate the condition of the closer involved in an injury case. However,
there are and have been cases that I have been involved with where the
evidence (door closer, door, frame, hinges, door seals, other hardware)
were removed, destroyed or damaged beyond use. This spoliation of evidence
is sometimes intentional. Involved parties conveniently lose hardware,
claim that nothing has been changed, all the while being fully aware that
some change or repair to the closer of issue will interrupt the legitimate
discovery process. Sometimes, a surveillance video clip made at the time
of the incident disappears along with the hardware evidence. In direct
contrast to the issue of spoliation of evidence, I have been flown across
the country to evaluate a door closer related injury just hours before
a building was to be torn down. In that case, I was able to photograph
the scene, preserve and record all pertinent data and retrieve hardware.
This was done within a twenty four hour period of my retention to assure
that the evidence was not lost or spoiled.
One of the most important aspects of destructive testing of a door closer
is that the alleged defective closer be made available for inspection.
It is critical that the "actual subject door closer" be tested
rather than a far removed similar product. If for some reason the actual
closer involved in an incident is not recoverable for testing, it would
be grossly inappropriate and inconclusive to attempt to examine a door
closer of a similar type. The only possible exception to this statement
is if an exact representative product, manufactured at the same time,
same plant, same assembly line and same assembly crew could be located.
The chance of meeting these qualifications seems very slim and remote.
The reason that an exact, although partial side by side comparison could
be made of this product in the above scenario is that it would be closely,
if not identically representative of the conditions and manufacturing
that could have occurred with the subject closer product. As most unused
closers are not found to be defective, it is still possible that this
side by side comparison would not be representative of the conditions
or "lifetime experiences" endured by the subject door closer.
In summary, if the actual subject door closer is not available, any and
all testing made using a presumed example should not be considered indisputably
representative or completely valid.
Inspection of a defective or malfunctioning door closer should include
a thorough battery of tests. Included among these tests should be function
swing checks, force assessment, component analysis and product manufacturing
residuals. There are many specific and highly detailed methods for analyzing
a defective product or component of that product that will not be discussed
in this article. Protocol for evaluating a defective closer, along with
procedures to preserve the evidence is mandatory to achieve conclusive
and definitive results.
Positive Identification of a Door Closer
Remember the old adage "You can't judge a book by its cover."
Or, in this case a closer by its components. Outward appearances of a
closer body cover may not be indicative of what product is in place beneath
the cover of the closer. You cannot be positive that the cover attached
to the defective closer body is original to that closer. Does the cover
of the closer match the make and manufacture period of the closer body
and arm of the closer? You may not be able to tell.
I was once involved as expert witness in a case where an incorrect metal
cover had been substituted for the original plastic cover that had broken.
The aluminum cover was forced into place on a closer body. This created
interference with the correct operation of the arm and lead to the closer
cover becoming a sharp hazard. A serious arm injury occurred as a result
of incompetent maintenance.
There are many closer arms that are interchangeable (possible to attach
to the closer body). That does not mean it is appropriate for a particular
closer body, and interchangeability can also lead to defective or inappropriate
operation of a door closer mechanism. You cannot always positively identify
the make and manufacturer of a closer body based on a visible arm design.
Styles of arm designs have been copied including maker's marks and
logos by foreign closer manufacturers.
Similarly, many closer covers are "usable" on closer bodies that
are not manufactured by the same company as the cover. It is virtually
impossible to assess the make and manufacturer of a closer body by the
cover. "Never judge a book by its' cover." Foreign "knock-off"
closer manufacturers sometimes have identical designs to domestic products,
yet the closer quality is sometimes inferior and unreliable. Domestic
manufacturers often have parts that will interchange with other manufacturer
components and allow for covers to be placed on a variety of closer bodies
made by other companies. The only completely accurate way to identify
the closer body and manufacturer is to have the actual subject closer
available for forensic analysis.
There are many more tests that can be done to a door closer. The above
information gives you basic and general beginnings of a scientific and
controlled evaluation of a defective or allegedly defective piece of equipment.
In all cases of forensic analysis, it is critical to fully record, document
and photograph your methods, observations and results. In this way it
is possible to positively corroborate your findings at a later date. Realize
that this article is meant as a cursory overview of how to assess a door
closer injury. It is meant as a very basic guide to show how different
factors contribute to a door closer injury. Many pertinent steps and methods
of detailed analysis of a defective door closer have not been discussed
in this article.
Door closer injuries are frequent. I have been involved as an expert witness
in dozens of door closer cases throughout the United States. I have been
retained as an expert witness by both plaintiff and defense for door closer
injury claims. My door and hardware business, "Door and Hardware
Systems" specializes in providing preventative maintenance programs
for large commercial venues, hospitals and hotels. We design, develop
and provide services to assure life safety, ADA code compliance and door
inventory control. My forensic analysis services and courtroom display
models have been used in many cases recreating and demonstrating the conditions
leading to serious personal injury and have helped resolve claims to end disputes.
Mike Panish is a forensic expert witness and consultant in the construction
industry. One of his primary areas of expertise pertains to doors and
automatic door cases. He has over 35 years of hands on experience dealing
with commercial, multi residential, hotel, hospital, lab and other locations
where specialty door systems are needed. He has written several articles
on the subject of door related claims and maintenance issues related to
door and automatic door systems. He is licensed as a door and hardware
contractor in the State of California. He has been involved in door cases
across the United States. He has been used as a consultant and has been
retained and designated as expert in many types of door injury related
claims for both the plaintiff and defense. Mike is able to quickly ascertain
the facts, explain the critical information pertaining to your case and
can assist you in developing your case from discovery through trial. He
has offices in California, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He is available
for nationwide, inspection, consulting, expert analysis, and testimony.
Michael Panish can be reached at
(888) 902-4272 or Expert@ConstructionWitness.com.