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Can A Child be Injured by Residential Elevators?

A report in The Washington Post details the long-standing hazard of elevator entrapment injury and death posed to children in homes with residential elevators. The problem, the report says, has led to at least eight deaths since 1981 and more than 100 other accidents causing injuries to children, “despite a simple solution.”

The report describes several product liability lawsuits against residential elevator makers, some of which have been resolved by large settlements with grieving families.

Unfortunately, as Long Island personal injury accident lawyers, we know that no monetary settlement will address the sorrow caused by the loss of a child in a preventable accident. New York has thousands of buildings with residential elevators. As the report makes clear, residential elevator accidents can be prevented.

What Makes Home Elevators Unsafe for Children?

Home elevator entrapment injuries among children come down to a single inch of open space that does not have to exist. 

What happens is that children become caught between a residential elevator’s two doors — to the elevator shaft and to the elevator car — and slip into the 5-inch gap in the floor between the doors. Five inches is enough for a toddler to fall into. Four inches is not, experts say.

Once the child is stuck in the gap or, if small enough, falls through into the elevator shaft, they can be crushed by the moving elevator.

The Post said that corporate memos going back to at least 1943 highlighted the hazard, and lawsuits filed on behalf of dead and injured children since 2001 further detailed the risk. In 2005, several elevator experts tried to change the nation’s elevator safety code to shrink the door gap — and were rejected. 

The elevator code finally was changed in 2017, but the revised code applies only to new installations. It did not address the hazard posed by hundreds of thousands of existing elevators due to the company’s negligence to completely address this issue, despite the fact that the problem could be solved with a $100 space guard, according to elevator experts.

The recommended space guards “attach to the inside of an elevator’s swing door and fill the additional space, like a foam insert in a box,” the Post says. They are first known to have been mentioned in an internal memo by the Otis Elevator Company dated September 30, 1943, which referred to a 1933 memo warning of the danger posed by the floor gap. Otis, the world’s largest elevator company, had installed thousands of swing-door elevators modeled like today’s home elevators, mostly in apartment buildings.

ThyssenKrupp, which shut down its U.S. residential elevator operations shortly after 3-year-old Jacob Helvey suffered catastrophic injuries in one of its home elevators on Christmas Eve 2010, explains (and sells) its home elevator space guard here.

Jacob Helvey is now 11 and unable to walk or talk. The Helveys settled their lawsuit against ThyssenKrupp for an undisclosed amount in early 2013.

Avoiding Responsibility for Home Elevator Accidents

The Otis elevators memo came to light in a lawsuit filed by the parents of 8-year-old Tucker Smith, who suffered fatal head trauma in an elevator entrapment accident in an Otis swing-door elevator at an inn in Bethel, Maine, in 2001. 

Despite the 58-year-old memo, “thousands of Otis elevators were left unprotected, according to court records, the Post says. The Smiths settled a lawsuit against Otis in 2003 for $3 million and secured a promise from the company that it would fix its elevators and warn others.

Meanwhile, residential elevators continue to be manufactured with the potentially fatal design flaw, and hundreds of thousands are being used in homes every day.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), an industry group that sets voluntary safety standards for elevators, escalators, cranes and other products, has codified the 5-inch gap in residential elevators. 

Several elevator engineers lobbied the ASME to change the standard to 4 inches in 2005, but the ASME committee rejected the proposal, the Post says. 

The ASME voted in 2016 to change its elevator code to limit the door gap to 4 inches. But the new standard, which took effect in May 2017, was not retroactive. It did not affect the hundreds of thousands of existing home elevators.

 “The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — the federal agency responsible for regulating safety in 15,000 consumer products, including elevators — has done little to address the problem, despite knowing about child fatalities since 1981.

The Post details how elevator companies and the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities have repeatedly lobbied CPSC commissioners to avoid having to even warn installers and dealers of the danger posed by residential elevators.

In a follow-up, the Post reported August 2 that CPSC acting Chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle, who is leaving in October, along with two residential elevator industry groups, issued a brief notice titled “Safety Alert to Protect Children from a Deadly Gap between Doors of Home Elevators.” 

How Prone Are People to be Injured by Home Elevators?

The Post says 300,000 to 500,000 U.S. homes and other buildings have residential elevators, which can cost as little as $15,000. They are popular in multi-story townhouses and beach houses and with homeowners who are disabled or elderly. 

Residential elevators — with an outer swing door like a closet door and an interior accordion or gate door — are different from commercial elevators, which have sliding doors.

The Post says its search of the CPSC database, news reports and lawsuits indicates that at least eight children have been killed and two more seriously injured in elevator entrapments since 1981.

A CPSC analysis found 131 cases of residential elevator door accidents, many involving children with hand injuries.

Evidence uncovered in the Smiths’ lawsuit shows that Otis Elevator had discovered that its swing-door elevators had killed or injured 34 children — almost all in entrapments — in just New Jersey and southern New York from 1983 to 1993.

In New York City, residential elevators, including stairway chair lifts, are legally required to be registered and have a certificate of compliance from the Department of Buildings (DOB) to ensure they can be operated safely. Homeowners who have not previously registered a residential elevator are to retain a registered design professional or licensed elevator inspection agency and then file an application with the DOB to obtain an NYC device ID and certificate of compliance.

In January, a woman became stuck in a private elevator on the Upper East Side for 72 hours with no way to contact the outside world. In May 2017, a woman suffered serious injuries after an unregistered elevator in a Manhattan home plummeted more than four floors to the basement. The elevator was illegally installed in the 1940s and was never registered, properly inspected or maintained.

Call Our Lawyer If Your Child Was Stuck in an Elevator

If your child or another family member has been seriously injured in a residential elevator, you could be entitled to recover compensation for medical costs and for your family’s pain and suffering through a product liability lawsuit. Manufacturers who place profits ahead of safety should be held accountable when preventable accidents occur and cause injuries.

To learn more about this process and the legal rights of an elevator accident victim, contact our team of Long Island product liability lawyers at Cohen & Jaffe, L.L.P. today to schedule your free legal consultation in our office and take legal action.

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