Every working day, millions of Americans who work in buildings that have multiple floors take elevators to get to and from their offices. Many apartment, condominium, and co-op residents use elevators to get to and from their units. And every day, countless Americans ride escalators to transport them from floor to floor inside retail department stores and malls. There are approximately 600,000 elevators in the United States and 120 billion rides on elevators and escalators each year. There are 20 times more elevators than escalators in the United States, but the numbers of persons injured and killed by the two modes of transportation are about equal. This means that you are 20 times more likely to have an accident on an escalator as compared to an elevator.
In California, it is well established that commercial operators of elevators and escalators are “carriers of persons for reward.” This means that elevators and escalators are “common carriers.” As a common carrier, the owner and/or operator of an elevator or escalator has a higher standard of safety and care, and can be held financially responsible (“liable”) to passengers who have been injured by even the slightest amount of carelessness (“negligence”). The California Supreme Court stated that a higher standard applies to all persons who submit their bodies to another’s control by which their lives or limbs are put at hazard.
California Civil Code section 2100 requires a carrier of persons for reward (a “common carrier,” including commercial elevators and escalators) to use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill. Civil Code section 2101 requires a common carrier of persons to provide vehicles safe and fit for the purpose to which they are put, and the common carrier is not excused for default in this respect by any degree of care. Accordingly, an elevator car or escalator must be in “safe and fit” order to safely transport its passengers.
California law requires a common carrier to use the “utmost care and diligence” for the safe carriage of its passengers. The owner/operator of an elevator or escalator is bound to use the utmost care and diligence that a very cautious person would, as far as human care and foresight can go, and they are responsible for injuries resulting from the slightest neglect against which human care and foresight might have guarded. Common carriers are not, however, insurers of their passengers’ safety. An “insurer” of a person’s safety is liable for all injuries and deaths arising from its acts or neglect, even if it was not negligent in any way; it guarantees that the person will not be hurt, regardless of the cause of those injuries. In cases involving common carriers such as elevators and escalators, it is necessary to prove that the owner/operator was negligent in some manner. This is true despite the fact that the owner/operator of the device is bound to the standard of the utmost care and diligence, and even the slightest carelessness would be enough to impose liability.
An elevator or escalator owner/operator is a common carrier only in regards to individuals who are using the elevator or escalator for the purpose of transportation at the time of the injury. For instance, children who are playing at the top or bottom of an escalator, and not intending to ride the escalator, do not get the benefit of the common carrier higher standard of care. This does not mean, however, that the owner/operator of the elevator or escalator does not owe any degree of due care toward the child. In such case, the owner/operator still owes the child the duty to exercise reasonable care, that is, the standard of care owed under general negligence principles, to keep the premises reasonably safe.
The owner/operator of the elevator or escalator may have a duty to protect children playing on the elevator or escalator, particularly when the owner/operator knows that other children have played on the elevator or escalator in much the same way while those who should have been watching them were busy shopping. Because the owner/operator knows or could anticipate that young children would play on or around the elevator or escalator, the owner/operator has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent those children from being injured or killed by the elevator or escalator.
If a person is in the process of getting on or off an elevator car or escalator, she is considered a passenger even though she may not be physically in the car or on the steps of the escalator. A person is considered a passenger until she has safely gotten off the elevator or escalator in a relatively safe place. The responsibility of the owner/operator of the elevator or escalator to its passengers continues until the passengers have had sufficient time to get away from the elevator or escalator without injury.
A passenger’s motive for using the elevator or escalator is irrelevant in determining the common carrier’s liability, and the common carrier owes the same high duty of care whether the passenger rode for pleasure or business. So if a passenger is injured by an elevator that she was taking for the sole purpose of getting to the top of a skyscraper to enjoy the view, and did not intend to transact any business in the building, she is no less entitled to a safe elevator than one who uses the elevator to get to an office to conduct business. Similarly, a department store visitor who is injured by a defective and dangerous escalator while “just looking” is owed the same high duty of care as a person who goes to the store with the intent of purchasing an item.
Many elevator-related injuries occur when people are getting off the elevator and the bottom of the elevator is not flush with the outside floor. Sometimes the difference between the bottom of the elevator and the outside floor is a foot or more. More frequently, however, “trip and fall” injuries result when the floor of the elevator stops short of or overshoots the floor by as little as one or two inches. This can result in the person’s foot being tripped by the uneven lip between the elevator floor and the outside surface, causing the person to fall and suffer serious injuries, such as a broken leg, arm, or hip, or hitting his face on the ground causing broken bones and disfiguring injuries, or striking his head on the ground, resulting in a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Hand, forearm, foot, and lower limb injuries can occur when a person attempts to stop the elevator’s doors from closing so he can board the elevator car. The doors may be closing too quickly or too forcefully, causing injury. Occasionally an elevator cable will break, causing the elevator to drop to ground level in a free-fall, seriously injuring or killing the passengers. Modern elevators are usually equipped with a safety brake system to prevent this from happening, but the safety brake system has been known to fail, resulting in catastrophic, even fatal, injuries.
Many elevator accidents occur on construction sites when workers are traveling from floor to floor. If the worker’s employer installed the elevator and is the one in charge of servicing and maintaining it in a safe condition and the worker is injured in an elevator accident, the worker’s sole remedy is usually worker’s compensation benefits. But if another company (i.e., a subcontractor) installed the elevator and has the duty of maintaining it in a safe condition, the worker injured by a defective and dangerous elevator may be able to sue the elevator company.
It has been estimated that as few as 15 percent of escalator accidents are the result of “unsafe acts.” The majority of accidents are caused by worn, damaged, or faulty equipment, many of which could be avoided with proper inspection, servicing, and maintenance. Unlike, say, a car, the mechanical workings of an elevator and escalator rolls are not easily accessible. This means that less effective techniques are often used instead of physical inspection. As a result, reliability is reduced and the potential for accidents is greatly increased.
Ordinarily, a passenger on an escalator stands and does not sit on the steps. When one considers, however, the enormous numbers of patrons of stores that use escalators as a means of transportation, one must conclude that occasionally someone will fall and her hand must rest upon the tread of the step either for a very brief time or for almost the whole descent, depending upon the force of the fall, the ability of the person to recover her balance, her ability in regaining her position, and similar factors. Children use escalators in great numbers, and their hands may be on the treads even though they have not fallen. A department store, for example, invites not only people who are alert and nimble and adult to use its escalators, but all of its patrons, with the possible exception of those patrons whose age and infirmity would make any use or moving stairs hazardous. Under the duty to use utmost care required of a common carrier, the escalator must be constructed, maintained, and operated with the purpose and design to prevent injury to those whose hands do get into the treads.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the people who are injured while riding an escalator are young children. Young children do not have the same stability as adults and are especially vulnerable to falling and being injured at the slightest bump or shake of the escalator. Young children are frequently fascinated by the movement of the stairs and will attempt to put their fingers or hands between the moving stairs and the stationary rail. Young children also have a harder time getting on and off and escalator, often falling in the process and being injured.
Children under the age of five are exempt from the rule of “comparative negligence,” as a child of such early years is legally incapable of realizing and understanding that his conduct may result in his being injured by the elevator or escalator on which he is riding or playing. In short, the young child does not appreciate the nature and extent of the danger and voluntarily encounters it without regard for his own safety.
Unlike an elevator, which has doors separating the moving car and its passengers from the stationary shaft, an escalator must move alongside a stationary balustrade. It is important that openings (“apertures”) between treads and risers, and between steps and balustrades, be kept to a minimum in order to prevent a rider’s hand from being caught between them.
There are maintenance companies that service, maintain, and inspect elevators or escalators to ensure that they are operating properly and are free of conditions that might pose a hazard to persons using the elevators or escalators. Such a company can be held liable for injuries resulting from its negligence in inspecting, maintaining, and servicing an elevator or escalator. If the owner or operator fails to have the elevator or escalator regularly inspected for dangerous conditions, she can be held liable for injuries to or death of persons using the elevator or escalator that are caused by the unsafe condition of the elevator or escalator.
As noted above, it is well settled in California law that commercial elevators and escalators are “common carriers” and owe a higher duty of care towards their passengers than is ordinarily required. However, as to persons not on an elevator or escalator, nor in the process of getting on or off, the owner and/or operator owes them only the ordinary standard of safety (“due care”). Thus, if a part of an escalator broke off and was thrown 20 feet, hitting a shopper, the legal and financial responsibility (“liability”) to that person would be determined using ordinary rules of negligence law, and not the higher duty owed by common carriers, as the person was not a passenger on the escalator at the time of the incident.
If the elevator or escalator was defective because it was not properly made or designed, and a person is injured or killed due to that defect, the injured person (or the next of kin, if the person was killed) has the right to bring a strict products liability lawsuit against the manufacturer, supplier, owner, and operator of the elevator or escalator. Strict products liability law does not require that the injured person prove that the manufacturer or other person had failed to use due care (was “negligent”) in designing or making the elevator or escalator. All that needs to be proved is that the elevator or escalator was made or designed defectively and that defect was a cause of the person’s injury. There is no requirement that a specific act of carelessness (negligence) be shown. For further information about suing an elevator or escalator manufacturer, distributor, or seller, see Chapter 21, “Defective Products.”