A freak accident on an elevator in a Midtown Manhattan office building has taken the life of a 41 year-old woman and shocked an entire city. Suzanne Hart died on the morning of December 14, 2011 as she stepped onto the elevator on the way to her job at an advertising firm. With the elevator doors still open, the car suddenly lurched up while she was halfway in. The car stopped between the first and second floors, trapping her between the elevator and the wall and crushing her to death. It took rescue workers an hour to get two other passengers, who suffered no physical injuries, out of the elevator. Hart was pronounced dead at the scene, but her body could not be retrieved until much later in the day.
Elevator accidents are rare but provocative occurrences. New York City boasts more than 60,000 elevators, according to the New York Times, and they are an essential feature of the city’s many tall buildings. There were 53 accidents involving elevators in 2011 with three fatalities. The most recent death in an elevator accident prior to this one occurred in September, when a worker for elevator maintenance company Transel Elevator, Inc. fell down an elevator shaft at a building in the Garment District.
Elevators are such a common part of everyday city life that accidents such as these are difficult to imagine, seeming more like something out of a horror movie. In reality, elevators are just one more type of mechanical device on which we rely, but which need regular inspection and maintenance. Much like a car or an airplane, any number of failures could lead to tragedy. A famous story that has already achieved urban legend status illustrates the risks and liabilities. A doctor in Houston, Texas was killed in 2003 when a malfunction caused the elevator doors to close as he entered the car. He was trapped between the doors as the car quickly rose and partially decapitated him. Investigators concluded that a maintenance worker wired the car incorrectly, directly leading to the accident. The doctor’s family sued the elevator company for wrongful death and settled in 2004.
Property owners, landlords, and the maintenance companies they employ have a duty to maintain reasonably safe premises, and they could be liable for injuries or deaths that occur if they breach this duty. The investigation into the accident that caused Hart’s death is still ongoing, but preliminary reports have indicated that Transel Elevator, the same company that lost an employee in the September accident, was performing electrical maintenance on the elevator car hours before the accident. This is reportedly the focus of the investigation by the city’s Department of Buildings. Whatever the specific cause of the accident, it is remarkable because of the seemingly simultaneous failure of all the elevator’s safety mechanisms, which are supposed to prevent movement of the car while the doors are open.