Elevator accidents often involve catastrophic injuries, including death, paralysis, or amputation, either because someone has fallen down the elevator shaft or because something went wrong when an elevator mechanic was working on top of or below the elevator car. However, serious injuries can result from less dramatic and more common events, such as stepping into an elevator that is not level with the hallway floor (mis-level ling), being hit by an elevator door closing too quickly (failure of a rebound device or proximity sensor), or the sudden rise or drop of an elevator car.
When these events occur, safety standards call for the elevator to be taken out of service while the cause of the accident is investigated. A proper investigation by the building owner’s insurance company, OSHA, the local police, or state regulatory officials may help to establish whether the owner, installer, manufacturer, or an elevator maintenance contractor is legally responsible for the injury. However, most building owners, property managers, and others who operate elevators are so anxious to keep the elevator in service that they conduct only the most cursory investigation. Many fail to report accidents to government officials. An inadequate or delayed investigation makes it much harder to determine the cause of, and thus legal responsibility for, an elevator accident. In these cases, finding a qualified elevator expert and starting a careful case analysis is critical to winning a settlement or award for an injured client.
Most of this article is about commercial passenger elevators commonly found in commercial buildings. Other types of elevators include freight, home, and temporary elevators (such as those used on construction sites), dumbwaiters, and limited use elevators (such as those associated with grain silos or other special purposes).
Passenger elevators in buildings over three stories high are usually raised and lowered by cables driven by electric motors. Hydraulically powered elevators are mostly limited to low-rise settings because the hydraulic piston must be sunk into the ground below the elevator and it is expensive to dig a hole that will accommodate a ram long enough to extend more than one or two stories high.
Elevator cars travel up and down in a shaft (“hoistway”). The car must not move too far sideways in the shaft, it should stop smoothly and within a half-inch of the floor at each hallway, and it must come to the proper floor when it is called in an efficient order (stopping as necessary as it goes up and down).
An elevator car has a door that moves with it, and the hallway on each floor also has a door. The opening of the car door and hallway door must be precisely coordinated so that the doors function as a single unit, and the doors must not open if the car is not at and level with the hallway floor.
An elevator is a very complex and potentially dangerous system of interlinking hardware and control devices. How well the parts fit and work together and whether they are operated and controlled mechanically, electrically, or by computer depends on when the original equipment was installed, how it has been maintained, and whether it has been altered or upgraded. People are not in a position to evaluate all of these issues as they go about their daily business, and should not have to. We have a right to expect that elevators will be properly designed, installed, and maintained.
When something goes wrong and serious injury results, attorneys are called upon to think about whether elevators are products, component parts of a larger system, or simply “real estate.” If a malfunctioning elevator or component of an elevator is a defective product, the defect must be defined in light of what was known to its sellers as of the date it was designed and sold. If an elevator is real estate or a component part of a building, an injury case arising from its use must be evaluated as a maintenance, repair, or warning problem. Which legal theory best fits a particular case will depend on circumstances. An experienced lawyer will proceed by keeping all options open for as long as possible.
As noted above, legal responsibility for elevator accidents may lie with the owner, installer, manufacturer, or maintenance contractor. Unless the elevator is brand new, or unless the accident can be explained by a design defect or sudden failure of a component part, most successful claims associated with injuries from elevator malfunction are likely to be negligence claims.
The owner of a building equipped with elevators is responsible for maintaining the elevator in reasonably safe condition. This should be done by at least three separate sets of evaluations. First, most states have a statutory requirement that each elevator be checked once per year by a licensed elevator inspector. This annual event is not a comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the elevator, but it is necessary for getting the certificate that we are accustomed to seeing posted in elevators. Second, a building owner is responsible for maintenance inspections on a discretionary schedule, at least once per month but preferably more often. These routine inspections are usually done pursuant to a service contract, and the contracts are put out to bid among a small group of companies which pay mechanics to follow a route, inspecting the same elevators regularly. When elevator accidents occur, building owners will often rely on this maintenance contract in saying, “We hired a trustworthy contractor.” However, this predictable response is not enough. Elevator owners should also carry out a third kind of analysis, one in which they independently evaluate whether their monthly maintenance program is effective. They should keep records that reflect the frequency of breakdowns, the occurrence of injuries, and other facts that make it possible to predict whether people are going to be safe on their elevators.
Elevator inspection contractors are on the front line of elevator safety. They should maintain records of who does the inspection work, how frequently, and what action is taken during each regular visit. These visits are generally less than one hour each for each elevator on site, not long enough to comprehensively inspect all of the critical parts of an elevator. The idea is that each visit includes a general review and specific attention to a few mandatory maintenance items. Over the course of time, in theory, every important point is addressed adequately. The records they keep are mainly for defensive purposes, but may yield clues about the effectiveness of the maintenance schedule and maintenance work.
The great variety of elevator installations and the changes in technology which have occurred since elevators were first introduced make it impossible to generalize about the cause of elevator accidents. Those same factors make a prompt and effective inspection of the evidence and analysis of potential claims and defenses critical to success. There is no substitute for experience and expertise when it comes to helping a client recover for injuries sustained in an elevator accident.