Accidents involving elevators are a rare occurrence. According to ConsumerWatch.com, there are about 18 billion passenger trips on elevators. Of these 18 billion passenger trips, there are about 27 deaths annually according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Injuries and deaths are so uncommon that there isn’t much written about them in medical literature. In fact, people who service and maintain elevators are more likely to be injured. A report from the Occupational Health and Safety supports this fact. According to the report, the people who install and maintain elevators may become injured in a variety of ways, including, “falls, electrical shocks, muscle strains and other injuries related to lockout/tagout, confined spaces, scaffolds, cranes, rigging, hoisting and heavy equipment.”
Fortunately, the safety for passengers is much better. “Because of the intricate, redundant and regulated safety features built in to every elevator, catastrophes are rare outside of movies and TV,” according to the report. So-called rope elevators require only one woven steel cable, but they usually have four to eight cables just in case. In addition, elevators are equipped with “automatic braking systems” that are backed up by “electromagnetic brakes.” Finally, the report notes, “at the bottom of the shaft is a heavy-duty shock absorber system designed to save passengers if all else fails.”
Although rare, elevator accidents occur. Most elevator accidents involve serious injuries and in many cases death. When investigating these cases, it is important to perform an inspection of the site immediately and obtain photographs and witness statements. Also, it is imperative to obtain the safety records, the maintenance records and inspection records. Generally, the focus of the investigation is the elevator maintenance company, the property management company and most importantly- the owner of the elevator.
In Pennsylvania, it is widely recognized that “the duty of an owner of an elevator to its passengers is similar to that of a common carrier, which is to exercise the highest degree of care.” McGowan v. Devonshire Hall Apartments, 420 A.2d 514, 519 (Pa. Super. 1980) (citations omitted, emphasis added). In cases involving the alleged negligence of an elevator or escalator owner, Pennsylvania Courts have held that this high standard of care allows for an inference of negligence through application of the doctrine called res ipsa loquitur. See McGowan, 420 A.2d at 519-520; Gilbert v. Korvette’s, Inc., 299 A.2d 356 (Pa. Super. 1972).
Res Ipsa Loquitor is a Latin phrase meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” Essentially, this doctrine means that negligence can be inferred from the very nature of the accident without any direct evidence of negligence. Restatement (Second) Torts § 328 D (1964) sets forth the requirements for the application of res ipsa loquitor as follows:
- The event is of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence;
- Other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence; and,
- The indicated negligence is within the scope of the defendant’s duty to the plaintiff.
“This doctrine has been applied to cases in which machinery has operated improperly because, although it may be clear that something went wrong, no specific proof or explanation for the accident is present and the question arises whether the defect was reasonably preventable or curable by the defendant.” McGowan, 420 A.2d at 518. “The jury’s finding of liability is drawn from the expectation that the condition or defect causing the accident was obvious enough or present for a sufficient length of time that it should have been detected by the use of ordinary care. Id. (citing 2 F. Harper & F. James, The Law of Torts § 19.5 (1956).