Elevator Accident Litigation: The Role of the Expert Witness

    Elevators may be an intrinsic part of architecture, but they can pose serious dangers if not properly inspected and maintained. A 2006 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that elevators and escalators cause about 30 deaths and 17,000 serious injuries per year, sustained by both the general public and the workers tasked with maintaining these mechanical structures.

    When litigating an elevator accident case, depending on the particular circumstances of the incident, liability may extend to the manufacturer, installer, maintenance contractor, or the building owner. In any such case, expert witnesses will undoubtedly be needed to establish the inner workings and applicable safety standards of these contraptions.

    Elevator Accidents: How do They Happen?

    When an elevator fails to work properly, serious and sometimes fatal injuries can result. Falling through an open elevator shaft is a particularly deadly accident, which can happen to elevator maintenance workers. Last month, a New York City construction worker was killed by an elevator when he was crushed by a metal saddle that protruded from the elevator shaft. Reports indicate the man may have dropped his cell phone in the shaft prior to death, indicating a potential reason why the worker found himself in the open shaft.

    In a tragic accident that can take mere seconds, a victim may also become stuck in a moving elevator door, oftentimes resulting in a gruesome death. One New York City resident suffered a similar accident when exiting his building’s elevator, which dropped suddenly, tragically crushing him to death. The building, owned by Manhattan Promenade, was previously ordered to stop use of the elevator until a certain safety feature was fixed. Although inspectors approved the repair, the violation remained open because the landlord did not pay the applicable fine.

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    An elevator may also reach an excessively high speed that can fling passengers around, causing various injuries to the head, neck, and body, similar to the jolts sustained in a car accident. A 29-year old construction worker was recently awarded a $1.9 million settlement for personal injuries sustained when the elevator he was riding picked up excessive speed. He was thrown to the ground, and then hit on the head by a dislodged escape hatch. The plaintiff alleged that the elevator repair company was negligent in the maintenance of the elevator.

    Other injuries may be relatively minor, such as snagging an article of clothing on a closing door or suffering a trip and fall when exiting due to uneven alignment between the elevator car and floor.

    Elevator Engineering

    Most people understand the general premise of commercial elevator operation. The elevator cars are raised and lowered by cables and electric motors. Once at a floor, the elevator’s doors align with the floor’s door prior to opening. But the mechanics behind these operations are far more complex and require exact specifications in order to function properly and safely.

    Whether a case is in its preliminary stages or proceeding to trial, one, if not more, engineering experts can be of use in evaluating the claims. Mechanical engineers can attest to the intricacies of elevator design and manufacturing so that any mechanical failures could be better understood by the litigants and fact finders. Civil engineers, a discipline that focuses on applying scientific principles to built environments, can also be of use in explaining the construction and functioning of an elevator in a commercial setting. Biomechanics is a sub-specialty of engineering that focuses on the body’s response to external forces or events. These experts can be particularly useful in explaining how the force or speed of an elevator contributed to the victim’s injuries.

    Proper Maintenance and Inspection

    It is not enough for elevators to be properly designed and manufactured—they must also be maintained and inspected. Most states have their own specific rules and regulations for maintaining an elevator. For example, New York City requires that all elevators and escalators in the five boroughs be tested twice annually. There are also a number of organizations dedicated to promoting the maintenance and safety of elevators, such as the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation.

    Experts in elevator safety and maintenance can help identify the specific malfunction of the device and how the defect contributed to the injury. Whether the malfunction was not addressed by the maintenance company hired to service the elevator, or the property simply failed to take reasonable care of the elevator, an expert versed in the safety and maintenance requirements of day-to-day elevator operation can help pinpoint causation.

    Workplace Safety Practices

    While the prevalence of elevators in our everyday lives leaves a large portion of the population susceptible to malfunctions, elevator workers comprise a majority of those injured by these devices. Individuals that are employed to install, maintain, inspect, and repair elevators are at a heightened risk of injury. This past February, a construction worker at the Salt Lake City International Airport redevelopment project fell 40 feet down an elevator shaft, resulting in his death. The rate of elevator-related deaths among construction and maintenance workers is on the rise, with more than 53% of the deaths being caused from falls in the elevator shaft.

    While some victims may contribute to their own injuries due to inexperience or other human factors, jobsite safeguards and uniform safety procedures—such as fall protection measures and fall arrest system—should be in place to ensure that a minimum standard of care is met on a jobsite. At the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also referred to as OSHA), has their own regulations governing the safe use and handling of elevators. If worksites do not provide adequate safety measures, an employer may be held liable for a worker’s injuries. Experts in construction management and safety should be utilized in these types of cases. They can help establish whether the necessary safety precautions were taken and if not, whether the failure to do so resulted in the plaintiff’s injury.

    Injuries sustained in or by an elevator can be severe and tragic. In order to successfully litigate these claims, an array of experts are needed so that the complexities of these mechanisms are fully understood.