Legal? Ethical?

The sad case of the professor from Slippery Rock, Pa., who came in contact with an old door at a sandwich shop in 2013 bears a closer look.

The professor, Glen Brunken, tripped and fell through the glass door at Bob’s Sub and Sandwich Shop, suffering severe lacerations and trauma to his neck and head. He died later at a local hospital after succumbing to his injuries, and his wife, Cynthia, has since sued multiple parties for negligence.

At first glance, it seems to simply be a case of an old door glazed long before anyone ever heard of 16CFR 1201 (the original CPSC Federal Safety Glazing Regulations), long before safety glazing was even a known issue. But then the case got more complicated and may even set some new legal precedents.

First, the architect and builder are being sued because, the professor’s widow contends, they should have known that the non-safety glass did not meet current code and should have been changed. And right there in the lawsuit is the old and generally held belief that since they are the industry professionals, they should have known this and should have upgraded the glass.

Most industry experts generally have held that if new glass is installed, that glass must meet code. But what about bringing “old” glass up to code? Unless the glazier has worked on it, then experts generally feel it is not part of the project and hence the glazier need not concern himself with it.

I understand this is the general legal convention, but is it ethical? You will have to decide that for yourself. But one thing I know is that it can be hopeless. Consider the poor glass shop manager who installs the glass in a strip mall storefront remodel. He surely will install new glass that meets code. Suppose, in the course of doing so, he becomes aware that an old side door in the building (that he is not working on or touching in any way) is glazed with non-compliant glass.  Does he tell the strip mall owner?

Be honest. You have heard the stories. Maybe you have lived them. It’s the rare building owner who, when confronted with this information, says “go ahead and change that door out, too. Safety first.” Instead you may hear “well that door’s been there 40 years and it’s never hurt anyone” or “yeah, right, and how much would that cost me? Haven’t you made enough money already?”

And once the glass shop keys the building owner to the issue, the owner can come back at the glass shop later because the glass shop owner, the professional, knew that old glass should be replaced and didn’t do so. Never mind that the building owner told him “no,” the glass shop has the professional burden. So it’s really quite a safety vs. legality dilemma for glass shops every day. Safety should always win; it’s just that someone has to pay for safety.

The professor’s case has gotten even more interesting because the architect now has been sued, making it one of the few cases I know where the burden for safety glazing is being put on this most Teflon of professions. And the most recent filing alleges that the doors in question were actually moved 10 feet during a remodeling.

Donn Harter, one of this country’s original authorities on safety glazing, has always said, “If you take it out, there is no doubt,” you must bring the glazing up to code. I remember many years ago trying to stump Harter with a scenario in which you would not do so. “So suppose, Donn, that a glass shop removed a large lite of plate glass just because a theater wanted to take an enormous baby grand out through the window? Once the piano was out, they put the glass right back in. Same glass. Same opening. They would not have to bring it up to code then, would they?”

Harter said he would, or he wouldn’t touch the job—or the glass, for that matter.

Wouldn’t it be great if our industry’s best and standard practices included a full safety glass audit of a remodeling project before any job begins? And that the building owner would be told, in writing, what needed to be brought up to code before the job started? Yet this solution only works if it becomes standard industry practice. Because for now, there’s a guy down the street who is more than willing to take any job you pass on, safety glazing be damned.

And that’s how lives are lost.

And that’s how glass gets a bad reputation.

And that is an unsafe shame.