As Americans head off for summer vacation and some much-needed relaxation as the COVID-19 pandemic finally eases up, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is warning that kids can be crushed to death by the elevator in their family’s vacation rental home.
On June 24, 2021, the CPSC warned of how quickly a simple push of a button can turn into a life-or-death situation when a child becomes entrapped in the space between a residential elevator’s inner elevator car door or gate and the exterior landing door. Once entrapped between the two sets of doors, 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. According to the CPSC, children as young as 2-years-old and up to age 16 have been crushed to death in home elevator door gaps. In some cases, children have suffered multiple skull fractures, fractured vertebrae, traumatic asphyxia and other horrific and lifelong injuries.
Shortly after issuing its warning, the CPSC filed an administrative lawsuit against ThyssenKrupp Access Corp. on July 7, 2021, seeking to force the company to conduct free safety inspections of its residential elevators and to install safety devices where necessary to eliminate excessive space between the two sets of doors. According to the CPSC, there have been three incidents relating to door gaps in certain models of ThyssenKrupp home elevators, including a 2-year-old child who died in 2017, a 3-year-old child left permanently disabled in 2010, and a 4-year-old boy who was hospitalized after a crush injury in 2019. ThyssenKrupp has refused to conduct a voluntary recall of its residential elevators. In a news release issued by ThyssenKrupp the day after the lawsuit was filed, the company blamed the problem on “improper third-party installations of safe, compliant elevators.” ThyssenKrupp said it has engaged in extensive outreach for years to alert homeowners to the hazard, and it was already providing free inspections, free hardware and free installations to those affected. In total, ThyssenKrupp manufactured and distributed at least 16,800 residential elevators through both the company and under multiple brand names before it exited the residential elevator market in 2012.
Notably, six months before the CPSC’s one-two punch, Otis Elevator — the world’s largest elevator manufacturer — recalled about 5,000 Otis and CemcoLift private residential elevators for this exact hazard.
For more information about dangerous door gaps in residential elevators CLICK HERE.
All told, residential elevators were linked to 4,600 injuries and 22 deaths from 1981 through 2019, according the CPSC. Other hazards involving residential elevators that have prompted recalls in recent years include:
In a tragic incident in 2010, an elderly couple died when the elevator in their coastal Georgia home on St. Simons Island got stuck between floors, and they had no way to call for help because there was no telephone, as required by state law. Investigators believe the couple was trapped in the closet-sized elevator in temperatures that rose into the 90s for at least four days before their bodies were found. The tragedy was discovered when a newspaper carrier called police concerned by the accumulation of newspapers outside the couple’s garage.
In addition to vacation rental homes, elevators with two sets of doors that may present a dangerous gap are commonly found in multilevel homes, townhomes and large homes that have been converted to inns or bed-and-breakfast hotels, according to the CPSC. Beach houses, in particular, are being built taller in recent years to protect against storm surge, and may be equipped with residential elevators.
Note that sliding-door elevators, which are typically found on commercial properties, do not pose this hazard.
The CPSC recommends that consumers concerned about elevator safety should lock the elevator itself in an unusable position or lock all exterior doors to the elevator.
The safety agency also urges consumers with home elevators to have a qualified elevator inspector examine the elevator for this dangerous gap and other safety hazards and to ensure that the elevator complies with voluntary industry safety standards set by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). In 2016, ASME voted to change its safety standard, effective May 2017, to narrow the door gap from five inches to four inches. However, not all states and localities automatically adopt the updated ASME codes, and the new standard is not retroactive to hundreds of thousands of residential elevators already installed across the United States.
Dangerous door gaps can be eliminated with a simple fix by installing a space guard — which costs approximately $100 to $200 — on the back of the exterior elevator door. The space guard is designed to fill the space between the closed exterior door and the door to the elevator car, which prevents a child from fitting between the two doors with the outer door shut. Electronic monitoring devices that will deactivate the elevator when a child is detected in the gap also can be installed.
Alan M. Feldman, a product liability attorney and co-founding 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.
Feldman 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. Moreover, there is no excuse for a dangerous door gap when a simple, inexpensive fix is available, said Feldman.
He identified multiple parties who could potentially bear legal liability for elevator accidents in vacation rental homes. They include:
“Because we all ride commercial elevators every day largely without incident, we expect that residential elevators will also be safe,” said Feldman. “In fact, less rigorous standards and practices for home elevators can create a risk of injury which is entirely preventable. Consumers need to be on guard.”
The product liability team at Feldman Shepherd, which also includes partners Daniel J. Mann and 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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