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Elevator-related Accidents

An elevator is a transportation device that moves people or materials between different floors, levels, or decks of buildings and other structures. It uses open or closed cabins that have the possibility of stopping at the chosen level. Mostly, elevators are used in residential and commercial buildings, mines, industrial plants, construction sites and like. The elevator cabins travel up and down the shaft, and should not move too far sideways in the shaft and should stop smoothly at each stop at the selected floor. Unfortunately, sometimes elevators get overused, or start malfunctioning and create serious risks of injuries to people who are using them.

Product liability claims based upon negligence or breach of warranty have been very common over the past decade. Elevator accidents can involve catastrophic injuries, even death, paralysis, and amputation. For example, an injury can involve the door or gate of an elevator shutting prematurely. Usually, in those cases, the manufacturer or seller is likely to be held responsible on the theory of product liability, strict liability or res ipsa loquitur. Under the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitor, the Plaintiff is not required to prove a specific defect of an elevator, rather liability is imposed through circumstance evidence—meaning, in the absence of negligence, the injury would not have occurred. Thus, the malfunction itself may be sufficient evidence of a defect to take the issue to the jury. 

Oftentimes, injuries come as a result of believing the elevator will automatically detect your presence upon entering or exiting the elevator. However, many times the doors will shut causing severe injuries to shoulders, back, head hands or other body parts.

On some occasions, injuries resulted from simply stepping into an elevator that is not level with the hallway floor. The elevator should stop at the appropriate height within the shaft. In these cases, people may trip or fall when they are stepping in and out of the elevator or injure themselves if the distance in leveling was extreme. In these cases, a manufacturer may be liable for failure to warn about a defect in the elevator. In the absence of any warning of a potential leveling problem, a passenger is likely entitled to presume the elevator would level properly. 

One of the most serious injuries is caused by abrupt drop or fall of the elevator. This usually occurs because the elevator cable breaks or because the locking device malfunctions that is used to lock the elevator on the specific floor. Cable failure can result in the falling of the elevator cabin. In addition, the existence of a defect of a locking device is usually established where the locking device was being used for its intended purpose but failed to perform.

These are just a few instances of elevator-related injuries. Injuries may also result from the following:

  • failed safety devices
  • failed elevator components
  • electrical issues
  • broken cables
  • a sudden stop or start of an elevator

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, elevators injure approximately seventeen thousand (17,000) and kill approximately thirty (30) people every year.

North Carolina recognized that the use of unsafe and defective elevators imposes a substantial probability of serious and preventable injury to the public and employees exposed to such unsafe conditions. Consequently, North Carolina enacted the Elevator Safety Act which is a set of laws that govern elevator accidents. The Act provides that: “No person shall operate, permit to be operated or use any device or equipment subject to the provisions of this Article if such person knows or reasonably should know that such operation or use will expose the public to an unsafe condition which is likely to result in personal injury or property damage.”

The Act also prohibits the use of unsafe equipment, that would expose the public to an unsafe condition likely to result in personal injury, and it also imposes a duty on the owner or the operator of the elevator to report any death or injury that required medical treatment within twenty-four (24) hours to North Carolina Department of Labor which oversees and conducts inspections on elevators.

One North Carolina case, Womble v. Grocery Co., a company was found labile under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur which permitted the jury to infer negligence from the physical evidence when the employee sustained injuries due to the elevator’s fall to the basement floor. The employee worked in the company's storehouse where part of his duties included transferring from floor to floor certain goods by the use of an elevator. While the employee was in the course of transferring a load of goods, the elevator’s cable pulled out of its fastening, causing it to fall to the basement floor, injuring the employee. The employee argued that the elevator was defective and that the company negligently failed to examine and inspect it. The trial court dismissed the suit but the court on appeal held that the trial court could not have dismissed it because it was conceded that the elevator had not been inspected during its 18 months in use. The court determined that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied in that the accident presumably would not have happened if due care had been exercised by the company. Physical evidence showed that after the accident the elevator cable was frayed. Thus, there was physical evidence that allowed jury to infer negligence on the part of the company.

Legal responsibility may lie within the owner, installer, manufacturer, or maintenance contractor. For example, the owner of a building that has elevators is responsible for the maintenance of the same and failure to do so may result in a negligence claim against the owner. In addition, elevator inspection contractors are usually independent contractors that are entrusted with maintaining elevators and keeping track of when each maintenance was done as well as what was done.

There are number of different accidents attributable to the use of elevators. If you or a loved one has been injured in an elevator accident of any type, please do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC, we will answer questions regarding potential claim you may have. The initial consultation is free of charge.

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