ELEVATOR ACCIDENTS BY TYPE OF ACCIDENT

MIS-LEVELING 

 The allegation that an elevator failed to come level with the finished hallway floor is by far the most common reason for elevator lawsuits. It must be acknowledged that mis-leveling does occur, particularly on older AC brake controlled elevators of the type found in New York City apartment houses built between 1930-1960. This type of elevator is dependent upon the brake to stop the elevator at the floor and numerous things can affect the proper leveling. The major factors affecting leveling are: condition of the brake linings, tension on the brake springs, condition of the brake drum, ambient temperature, ambient moisture, overloading of the elevator and voltage fluctuations. Modern DC variable voltage elevators are designed to use dynamic braking to bring the car to a stop, and the brake is only applied when the elevator has come to a full stop. These elevators can also mis-level but the cause is most often in a component of the selector or leveling subsystems or pre-opening of doors on landing approach. Hydraulic elevators do not employ a brake to stop the elevator and most mis-leveling is caused by either a failure of the leveling units and targets or the car drifting due to valve or low oil problems.  

Analysis of mis-leveling cases requires knowledge of the elevator control system including the selector, selector drive, door restrictor system (if present), brake type and leveling system. Modern elevators of the type found in high rise buildings are designed to ANSI A17.1 Code and are required to stop within 1/8″ of the finished floor. Older AC powered units can be economically upgraded to conform to this standard and many elevator service firms are requiring owners to do this modernization or assume all liability for injuries resulting from mis-leveling. Additionally some firms have sent letters to clients advising them of meaningful Code changes, which although not retroactive, will enhance passenger safety. One that directly affects mis-leveling is the relatively simple addition of a door restrictor device which prevents the car door from opening if the elevator is out of the leveling zone.  

Factors that affect the outcome of mis-leveling cases include Notice, work tickets from the elevator contractor indicating repeated problems with leveling and violations that read on leveling such as brake or leveling citations. While the best Plaintiff cases have some or all of these elements, the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur has been successfully applied to elevator cases in New York State when the three elements have been clearly established. The argument that mis-leveling is a known occurrence on a properly maintained elevator does not eliminate an inference of negligence if the preponderance of evidence supports such a conclusion.  

DOOR STRIKES 

  

The second most common reason for elevator torts is the allegation that the Plaintiff was struck by a closing elevator door. This can only occur on passenger elevators with both car and hallway doors of the sliding type. The most common causes of door strikes are: inoperative door protection devices (electric eyes, safety edges and detector edges), improperly adjusted door closing force, improperly adjusted door closing speed or failure of the door protection device to react quickly enough to prevent passenger contact.  

When assessing a door strike case we must examine the elevator to determine what type of doors the elevator is equipped with, the type of door protection, the type of door operator and the distance between the inner edge of the outer door and outer edge of the inner door. The basic type of doors are single speed slide, two speed slide, center-opening and swing doors on passenger elevators. On freight elevators we also see vertical bi-parting power and manual doors, power or manual vertical gates, swing doors and combination slide and swing entrances. The primary cause of litigation in this area is  

the claim that the Plaintiff was struck by a closing door as they entered or exited the elevator. The Code is clear that every elevator with sliding doors must be equipped with one means of a door reversal device. Older elevators typically had a rubber or an aluminum edged device known as a safety edge. This device worked by contact with the passenger and when the rubber edge was depressed it would activate a micro switch causing the elevator door to reverse direction. Electric eyes were introduced in the 1950’s and were usually installed in pairs, one beam crossing the door opening at 42″ and a second at 18″, when a beam was interrupted the doors would again reverse direction. The advantage of electric eyes is that they did not require contact by the passenger, but the disadvantage was that they did not protect the entire opening. Detector or proximity edges had their genesis in an Otis product of the late 1950’s, the concept was based on a series of intersecting fields that would extend 6-8 inches in front of the closing door and reverse the doors if an object broke any one of the fields. The advantage of detector/proximity edges over both safety edges and electric eyes soon became apparent and the modern detector as manufactured by Janus, Otis, Formula Systems, Innovation Industries and others have up to several hundred beams crossing or cris-crossing the door entrance affording a high degree of passenger protection.  

Older apartment house elevators typically had swing type outer or hoistway doors and the most frequent accident claims come from finger and hand crushing injuries caused by doors closing too fast.  

A unique type of accident, usually involving children can occur when there is excess space between the inside of the hoistway door and the outside of the car door or gate. A small child or very thin adult can be caught on the landing sill area and injured when the car begins to move from the floor. Otis has recently, as part of a settlement agreement begun to notify owners of equipment that could cause this type of accident of the condition and offer to correct it at no cost to Otis customers. This agreement was in addition to a 3,000,000.00 cash settlement. As a footnote, the cost to retrofit the door in question…less than $15.00.  

Freight elevator manually operated vertical bi-parting doors and gates can be fitted with a soft neoprene edge to prevent crushing injuries while powered doors can be fitted with a foam filled reversing edge. Recently detector edges have been patented for use on bi-parting doors but to my knowledge none have entered the available commercial market.  

  

ABRUPT STOPS  

This third most frequent cause of elevator litigation often involves the highest level of injury with claims of injury to the lumbar or cervical spine, ankles, knees and other body parts that come into contact or are compressed when a passenger is thrown to the floor or against a cab wall. The most common causes of these occurrences are: setting of the car or counterweight safety with the car in motion, failure of the control system to detect the over speed condition and stop the elevator, failure of the elevator selector to advise the elevator of its proper location in the shaftway, hitting of an interlock release roller and causing an open in the door interlock circuit, failure of the normal and final limit switches and a runaway condition. Less common but more serious are stops caused by hoistway collisions between the car and counterweight and breaches of the hydraulic system resulting in rapid loss of fluid. Also uncommon are accidents that occur when the bolts strip on the worm gear with the elevator moving in the up direction causing a high speed impact with the machine room floor.  

The argumet that the design G force is insufficient to cause injuries is often nullified in the eyes of a jury when Plaintiffs have undergone open reduction surgeries or suffer visible injuries. In the most severe of these cases elevators will run into the pit or overhead at basically full contract speed and this will normally be due to loss of the selector or an open in the hoist motor armature both of which may be attributable to negligent maintenance. In one recent New York City case two cleaning women at a Penn Plaza building traveled from the 46th floor to the sub-basement impacting at about 1000 FPM. The injuries included open reduction with fixation of leg bones and knee injuries. The case settled for a total of 4,000,000. dollars. All paid by the elevator contractor.  

FALLS INTO THE SHAFTWAY 

This category results in the most severe injuries often including death. The primary causes of falls into the shaftway are: inoperable or defective electro-mechanical door interlocks, exiting stalled elevators that are more than three feet above a landing, elevator surfing, removal of passengers from a stalled elevator by untrained personnel, illegal opening of a shaftway door by the victim and unauthorized personnel using elevator drop keys.  

In the first scenario the liability will be attributed to negligent maintenance or improper repair of the interlock system. In the case of exiting a stalled elevator, failure of the contractor to recommend a door restrictor system will become a factor. Other factors that will affect exiting causation include removal by improperly trained personnel and how long the passenger waited before deciding to extricate himself/herself from the elevator. The case of elevator surfing presents a problem from a liability standpoint for the elevator contractor since it will be posited by the plaintiffs’ expert that the contractor was or should have been aware of devices that prevent entry to the car top or operation of the elevator if a person is standing on the car top. Illegal opening of shaftway doors is a common occurrence particularly when teenagers are attempting to gain entry to the top of the elevator to surf. Liability is difficult to prove unless the contractor has been placed on notice due to previous accidents and failed to recommend any ameliorative measures to the building owner.  

MISCELLANEOUS CAUSES 

Certain accidents do not fall into the common causes listed above, they include: electrocution or shock injuries, psychological injuries, injuries that result from vandalism by the victim, amputations or crushing injuries from contact with machine room equipment, drowning or near drowning and amputation or decapitations caused by contact with the moving elevator.  

Electrocution or shock injuries can result from improper wiring performed by the elevator contractor or outside electricians. They can also be caused by passengers reaching into areas such as the micro switch on the safety edge or an ungrounded push button in the car or hall. Elevator personnel, building staff and outside tradesmen can also be shocked if they come in contact with electrical equipment in the elevator machine room.  

Amputations or crushing injuries from equipment room contact usually involve elevator personnel, building staff or outside tradesmen working in the area. Issues that will be raised in these cases as well as electrocutions will involve adequate protection of work areas, use of lock-out/tag-out procedures, securing of the machine room and guarding of machinery. Drowning or near drowning is a rare occurrence and can occur when an elevator becomes trapped at the basement or below street level during a fire or water main break.  

These cases are easily defendable since elevator equipment is not designed to operate under such adverse conditions.  

Amputations or decapitations occur when a passenger attempts to exit an elevator moving with its doors open or places their head or other appendage through an unguarded opening such as a missing vision panel. The cause is normally attributable to a multiple failure that allowed the elevator to move with its doors open but can involve a “smoking gun” when the mechanic is known to be in control of the elevator

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