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County says collapsed deck lacked permits: Many could face liability over mishapat Guerneville-area vacation rental

A deck that collapsed under a crowd of young people partying at a Guerneville-area vacation rental house, seriously injuring a teenage girl, was built without proper permits, county building officials said Friday.

"Not only was the deck built without required permits, the deck did not meet minimum building standards," said Ben Neuman, code enforcement manager at the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department.

The deck, attached to a house on Sweetwater Springs Road near Armstrong Woods, collapsed Jan. 10 while a large crowd danced on it. Some witnesses said there were as many as 80 people and a DJ's table on the deck when it broke.

At least one teenager was hospitalized afterward and remains in serious condition. There were unconfirmed reports of several other injuries ranging from head gashes to a broken arm.

Neuman said the deck was built about 1995, about seven years before the current owners bought it.

"Not to build it to code is irresponsible and I'm just really glad that as bad as it got was my daughter's injury," said Jody Richardson, of Santa Rosa. Her daughter Michaela, 18, suffered a severely broken foot, an injury that could potentially cause her to lose her foot.

"That phone call I got in the middle of the night could have been the end of my life as I know it," Richardson said.

The owner, Christopher Coogan of Forestville, rented out the house through a property management company. He did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Coogan must either demolish the illegal structure or rebuild it with permits, the county determined.

If he demolishes it within 30 days, he would not be subject to monetary penalties, Neuman said.

He could be fined if he decides to acquire permits and rebuild the deck. But because he did not build the deck, he could escape those penalties, Neuman said.

Regardless of what happens to the deck, its collapse has opened the door to potential claims and counterclaims.

Pat Broderick, dean of Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa, said liability could extend to almost all involved.

The property owner is responsible for keeping the home in safe condition for all "foreseeable" uses, which could include a deck full of dancing young people, Broderick said.

The previous owner, who built the deck, may be liable.

The 20-year-old Sebastopol man who rented the house -- and reportedly signed a contract that prohibited parties being held there or additional guests -- could be liable too, Broderick said, especially if, as witnesses have said, he charged admission to the party.

The property management company that rented out the home could also be liable, Broderick said, because it may have broken its own rules prohibiting rentals to people under 21.

"Many parties will probably be brought into the action," Broderick said.

Richardson, whose daughter remains in a wheelchair, said her family has already retained an attorney.

"There has to be a lawyer involved. I'm so sorry about it, I'm not a litigious person and we're not like that," she said. "But I don't know what my daughter's future is. She's 18 years old and now has a pre-existing condition. She has to have representation."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com

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