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Residential Elevators Are Killing Small Children, and Little Is Being Done to Stop It

February 9, 2021

After more than 75 years of inaction and pushback from the residential elevator industry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has finally approved its first-ever safety recall aimed at protecting children from deadly accidents in which they become entrapped in the door gap of home elevators.

The December 17, 2020, voluntary recall ― agreed to by the world’s largest manufacturer, Otis Elevator Co. ― involves about 5,000 Otis and CemcoLift private residence elevators in which children can become entrapped in the space between the exterior landing door and the interior elevator car door or gate when the elevator is called to another floor. It applies to Otis private-residence elevators purchased before 2012 and CemcoLift private-residence elevators purchased from 1999 to 2012. The elevators were sold to independent third-party contractors and, occasionally, directly to consumers, and cost approximately $20,000 to install. The notice instructs consumers to disable or block children’s access to these elevators and to contact Otis to schedule a free inspection as well as the installation of space guards.

While the recall is welcome news to child safety advocates, it does not address hundreds of thousands of home elevators that continue to pose a serious risk to small children. Nor does it exonerate an industry that, per corporate memos, has known since at least 1943 about the danger, but dug in against making a simple fix ― with a part that costs less than $200 ― that most certainly would have prevented these harrowing accidents.

Why Are Home Elevators Dangerous for Children?

Residential elevators work differently than the familiar sliding-door elevators in office buildings, hotels and major retail establishments. The danger to children from residential elevators arises from a narrow gap between an outer door and a second door that closes off the elevator car. Until recently, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which sets voluntary safety standards for elevators, set the national standard for the gap between the two sets of doors at five inches. While it sounds small, the five-inch space is enough room for a young child to become entrapped when the outer door closes and automatically locks, and the elevator, with its door closed, begins moving to another floor with the child stuck outside the elevator car. The risk of entrapment is even greater if the elevator car door is an accordion-style door, typical for home elevators, as the folds in the door allow even more than five inches of space for a child to become entrapped.

In 2016, ASME voted to change its safety standard, effective May 2017, to narrow the door gap to four inches. But not all states and localities automatically adopt the updated ASME codes, according to National Elevator Industry, Inc., the trade association for the elevator and escalator industry. In fact, many require that the authority with jurisdiction over building transportation safety conduct an administrative rulemaking process before updating their elevator code. Moreover, the new standard, even when adopted, is not retroactive to hundreds of thousands of residential elevators already installed across the U.S., so children remain at risk.

Once entrapped between the two sets of doors of a home elevator, a child may get stuck on the elevator’s ledge and get crushed between the elevator floor and a door frame from above as the elevator ascends. Smaller children may avoid getting stuck on the ledge, but may fall into the elevator shaft when the elevator moves upward. They also may be injured by the elevator when it comes back down.

The mechanical explanation, however, cannot begin to describe the horror as innocent children suddenly find themselves in life-or-death situations, while their parents frantically try to save them. Reported accidents include the following:

  • A 2 ½-year-old boy became entrapped in an elevator in his grandparents’ house while his mom was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a few feet away in the kitchen. The mom, who could hear her son crying, could not get the outer elevator door open. She pushed the elevator call button, thinking that the door would unlock. But in the commotion, she did not realize that the elevator had automatically moved from the main floor to the second floor and was now hovering above her child. When she pushed the button, it descended on him. The last thing she heard before her son died was his screams from the other side of the door.
  • An 8-year-old boy was vacationing at an inn with his family, and went downstairs for breakfast, when his father realized he had forgotten his room key. The two headed back to the room, the father taking the stairs and the boy taking the elevator. The boy opened the elevator’s outer door, but before he could open the elevator gate, a maid on the second floor pushed the call button. The boy, who was partially on the elevator ledge, was forced upward into a space with too little room and suffered a fatal crush injury. His father’s scream when he discovered his son was described by a witness as “the howl of an animal.”
  • A 3-year-old boy was playing with his toy cars in his family home, which was equipped with an elevator for his grandmother. While his mother was putting clothes into the dryer, the boy apparently pushed the elevator call button and opened the outer swing door, which closed behind him. But the boy, who had never ridden the elevator alone, did not open its accordion door. When his mother pushed the elevator call button on the second floor, she could hear her son crying. Then silence. She ran downstairs and managed to rip the locked outer door open. She discovered her son pinned by the elevator at his chest, his head resting on the floor, and the rest of his body hidden below. Firefighters freed the boy with the “Jaws of Life.” More than 10 years later, he is unable to walk and talk as a result of his injuries.
  • An active 10-year-old boy was left paralyzed and unable to talk after becoming trapped underneath an elevator in a beach house that his family had rented in South Carolina in 2013. In the moments before the accident, his mother gave him an affectionate kiss, and he sought to escape her motherly love by going upstairs to play video games. After he entered the elevator, she heard his screams.

How Many Children Are Injured in Home Elevator Accidents?

Since 1981, at least eight children were killed in elevator entrapments and two others were seriously injured, according to an investigative report published by The Washington Post in December 2020. The Post arrived at these numbers through an examination of CPSC data and newspaper accounts. However, according to The Post, some experts suspect that the numbers may be significantly higher. These experts cite to data involving Otis Elevator, the world’s largest elevator company, to back their theory. From 1983 to 1993, Otis’ swing-door elevators, installed mostly in apartment buildings, killed or injured 34 children ― almost all by entrapments ― in New Jersey and southern New York alone, according to The Post’s reporting. Elevator experts point to design similarities between the two types of elevators as posing the same risks.

Also, the problem is probably worse than what the data reflects, as “near misses,” where a child is not catastrophically injured or killed, may not be captured in the statistics. For instance, as reported by The Post, in 2017 a 2-year-old girl whose family had rented a beach house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks got caught between the residential elevator’s swing door and accordion door. Her father was able to pry open the outer elevator door enough to see her standing in the elevator well. Someone on a higher floor apparently pushed the elevator button, and the elevator car moved upward. The father could see it narrowly miss his daughter as she stood in the gap. He and a friend managed to pull the 2-year-old to safety before the elevator descended. The father subsequently contacted the rental company, the elevator maintenance company and the ASME to report what happened. Dissatisfied that no one took responsibility, he attempted to report the matter to the CPSC through its SaferProducts.gov website. But because he had rented the beach house, he did not know the elevator’s manufacturer or model name, and he left those fields blank. The CPSC rejected his report because of the blank fields, even though the agency had his contact information.

In another “near miss,” in 2019, a 4-year-old boy became trapped with his lower body pinned under a residential elevator while visiting his grandparents in Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving. As the boy’s face was turning blue, his father and uncle pried off a metal piece from the elevator car, which allowed him to breathe. His quick-thinking grandfather ran to the home’s garage and grabbed an automobile jack. With the jack, the men hoisted the elevator up a few inches, and they pulled the boy out. The boy suffered bruises and scrapes but miraculously escaped serious injury.

How Can Residential Elevators Be Made Safer for Children?

Residential elevators can be made safer for small children by installing a space guard, which fills the gap between the closed outer door and the door to the elevator car. The space guard is mounted to the interior of the outer door and prevents a child from fitting into the space between the two doors with the outer door shut. This is the remedy that is offered in the recent recall by Otis Elevator.

Space guards cost approximately $100 to $200, according to The Washington Post’s report, yet young children remain at risk because elevator companies, by and large, have for years resisted fixing this hazard that it is well-known within the industry.

What Should I Do If My Child Is Injured in a Home Elevator Accident?

Daniel J. Mann, a product liability attorney and partner at Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock Dodig LLP, recommends contacting a product liability attorney as soon as possible following a residential elevator accident to ensure that evidence is preserved and that the child’s and family’s legal rights are protected.

Mann said that even before the ASME changed its voluntary safety standard to narrow the door gap to four inches, product liability law has always required product manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe for their intended and expected use. There is simply no excuse for bringing dangerous and defective elevators to market and then compounding the problem by refusing make a simple, inexpensive fix, Mann said.

“Too many children have been killed or seriously injured by this known defect, when a simple and inexpensive fix was available. It is tragic that further injuries are almost certainly going to occur,” Mann said.

The product liability team at Feldman Shepherd, which also includes co-founding partner Alan M. Feldman and partner Edward S. Goldis, has achieved substantial recoveries on behalf of individuals injured by dangerous products, with a particular focus on products that harm children and infants.

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