Expert Says Questions Still Abound About Glass-Related Fatality Case

There are still a lot of questions to be answered. One glass expert, though, thinks the widow of the retired Slippery Rock University professor who died this summer after tripping and falling head-first through a glass door at a Pennsylvania sandwich shop has a case worth watching with industry-wide implications.

In court papers filed last month at the Butler County (Pa.) Courthouse, Cythia Brunken alleges that her husband, 69-year-old Glen Brunken, died because of the annealed glass at the front of Bob’s Sub and Sandwich Shop in Slippery Rock. Brunken’s widow says that the glass “constitutes a well-known safety hazard when broken because such glass can break into large, sharp and unreasonably dangerous jagged shards if impacted” and store owner Cindy Marlowe was responsible for her husband’s tragic death on June 13.

Maybe, but maybe not, says Thomas S. Zaremba, a consultant to the glass industry with more than 30 years of experience.

“The use of non-conforming annealed glass in doors certainly poses serious potential risks of injury and/or death in the event of a forceful, accidental human contact,” he says. “That is, of course, why the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted 16 CFR 1201 in the first place.”

Adopted in 1977 with increased safety in mind, 16 CFR 1201 provides “very limited exceptions” with glass in doors installed after its adoption or glass replaced in doors after its adoption,” Zaremba says. Depending on its size, glass in public facilities, such as schools or restaurants, must meet specific safety criteria laid out in the statute. Typically, this means that the glass will either be fully tempered or laminated glass (although some monolithic fire-rated glazings in doors – usually interior doors – use an applied film to achieve compliance), Zaremba says.

But it remains unclear when the annealed glass that killed Brunken was originally installed and whether or not it was before the advent of 16 CFR 1201 and therefore exempt from federal code or whether it was replacement glass. If it were replacement glass that had been installed after 1977, it should have been code-compliant.

“While 16 CFR 1201 is a federal standard and pre-empts any less stringent state standard, to my knowledge, nothing in 16 CFR 1201 is retroactive, that is, applicable to glass in doors installed before its effective date,” Zaremba says. “Generally speaking, most minimum building codes do not require retroactive application. However, more stringent standards are not pre-empted and, therefore, a local law, ordinance, or building code presumably could require non-conforming glass to be replaced with conforming glass, but to do so would likely create a post-occupancy permit enforcement nightmare.

“Having said that, the use of non-conforming annealed glass in doors certainly poses serious potential risks of injury and/or death in the event of a forceful, accidental human contact. That is, of course, why the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted 16 CFR 1201 in the first place.”

Both Marlowe and Cynthia Brunken’s Pittsburgh-based attorney, David M. Moran, declined comment when recently reached by phone. Cynthia Brunken is seeking unspecified punitive damages.

Zaremba says a properly selected and applied film might mitigate or even prevent injury or, possibly, death in similar incidents, but cautions that there are a number of different types of applied films. Some are made to reduce solar gain, while others are specifically designed to reduce injury, he says. Moreover, retro-fitting a non-conforming annealed glass with an applied film would not result in compliance with 16 CFR 1201 since compliance requires impact-testing which, in the event of an annealed glass product, would almost certainly be destructive. Without impact testing as required by the standard, a retrofit installation may be safer, but would remain out of conformance.

Zaremba says glass compliant with building codes easily can be distinguished by the markings as required to be shown by the manufacturer and/or the door or window maker to certify complying glass. This marking is usually etched on a bottom corner of the glass.

“If the glass in a door does not bear this marking, it must be presumed that the glass is non-complying until proven otherwise,” Zaremba says.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office listed Glen Brunken’s death as “accidental sharp force injury to the neck due to ground level fall” and performed no autopsy.

Stay tuned to USGNN.com™ for more updates as they are made available.

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