During the last few months, the news has covered several elevator deaths in the New York area, culminating with the latest tragedy on March 5, 2021, when a man somehow became trapped underneath an elevator cab, in a Brooklyn apartment building, and was crushed to death. Because deaths surrounding elevator accidents are usually so horrible and graphic, they stay in our psyche, and tap into our fears, making us feel like they happen all the time. But, in reality, they don’t.
There is a line from the 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeves, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, where after Lois Lane’s (Margot Kidder) helicopter almost crashes. After he rescues her, he looks her square in the eye and says ” I hope this hasn’t put you off of flying. Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel”.
Well, statistically speaking, elevators themselves, if cared for, really are quite safe. Here are the numbers: New York City has more passenger elevators, at approximately 65,000 than any other locale in the United States. They carry approximately 35 million passengers per day (pre-pandemic statistics), so roughly 12 billion passengers annually. Yet, there are only a handful of deaths each year.
Complex Equipment that Requires Care and Attention
Elevators are basically computers that go up and down – and even though the task seems simple, the systems operating them are highly technical: they use counterweights to balance the cars, electric motors to hoist the cars up and down, braking and hydraulic systems, cables and pulleys running between the cars and the motors, and a ton of safety systems to protect the passengers if a cable breaks. High above the elevators is the motor room, where a large portion of the elevator’s electronics are house and computer chips abound.
New York City Elevator Regulations and Why Parties Don’t Comply
But just like with any computer, elevators should be routinely inspected and maintained, which is the obligation of the property owner and building management.
New York City has multiple state and city ordinances governing the maintenance, repair and inspection of elevators. The NYS Building Code requires that owners must have an active maintenance contract with an approved elevator agency and all elevators be inspected 5 times over a two year period by a contracted inspection agency and these inspections can take place at any time.
There is supposed to be a detailed maintenance log that describes all work performed, and failure to adhere to these guidelines can leave those responsible negligent or criminally charged. The most common violation is a failure to maintain an elevator, which are violations issued when a defect is found during testing. If an owner receives a violation, they have 10 business days to fix the defect or potentially face a criminal court summons.
However, due to budgetary constraints, elevators are often only inspected once annually in New York State. In addition, New York, unlike many other states, does not require that elevator inspectors be licensed. Finally costs lead to owners ignoring problems – modernizing an elevator can cost $200,000 to $1 million; maintenance contracts can range from $4,000 to $15,000 per unit; service calls can be $300/hr. for labor and many thousands of dollars for parts. . . so people neglect.
In the end, the human factor always seems to play a large role: owners repair and maintain on the cheap, maintenance shops cut corners, inspectors may be paid off, and people do faulty work. In the end, it is the negligence of the owners, management and elevator contractors, not the elevators themselves, that cause 99% of the problems that lead to accident.
While Deaths are Rare, Accidents do Happen Due to Human Error
So, while deaths are rare, elevator accidents do happen more often, although they too are statistically rare. More common accidents are listed below:
- Misleveling occurs above or below the floor and people fall down and out or down and into the elevator;
- Doors close too quickly, striking people entering or exiting;
- People get trapped inside;
- Sudden acceleration or deceleration causes falls;
- Car gets stuck between floors and folks get hurt trying to climb out;
- Doors open without a car present, and someone attempts to step in and falls down the shaft.
Lengthy Investigations in the Aftermath of an Accident
If your computer stops working, you may say it’s old or it got a virus, but most people don’t really know why it broke. Elevators are the same and the faster one calls a lawyer, the higher probability that the problem gets detected before it gets covered up. It takes a detailed investigation, reviewed by an elevator expert, to ascertain the root of the problem and find every party that’s responsible. We must collect evidence such as security footage inside the elevator, inspection data, maintenance logs, and service reports. An inspection of the elevator car and the motor room need to take place and the repair people need to be deposed.
Evidence Discovered During a Typical Investigation Demonstrates Human Error
In one of the last high profile elevator accident, back in December 2011, Suzanne Hart, an advertising executive was killed in an elevator accident at 285 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. As she entered the elevator, the car suddenly accelerated upward with the door still open, crushing her. It took investigators, prompted by City Units, the District Attorney and personal lawyers hired by the victims family, several months to conclude that an elevator repairman negligently disabled a safety feature shortly before the accident, so he could work on it and never reengaged the safety mechanism that prevented an open elevator from moving.
However, the repairman wasn’t the only one acting negligently. The building had been found to have committed 34 violations in failing to maintain the elevators in the 10 years leading up to the accident, with 14 violations still being “opened”. In addition, the Buildings Department, which is supposed to inspect following repairs, had not been notified by ownership, management or the elevator company that repairs had been made. Further, it was found that no party posted signs warning that the elevators were being worked on.
In summary, a properly maintained and serviced elevator is very safe. Unfortunately, workers sometimes fail to follow the most basic safety protocols and owners sometimes decide to worry more about costs than human life.
In this recent Brooklyn tragedy, one will probably similarly find that someone disengaged a safety feature and the man fell into an empty elevator shaft, and was later crushed. In the aftermath of this accident, as has occurred in the past, the City will probably do a sweep of a few hundred elevators that have ongoing complaints, so they too aren’t brought in as a defendant in the next case. Hopefully, it will save lives, but we as human beings, need to do better.