Construction accidents involving elevators are becoming a common occurrence. In a notable case, an electrical construction worker entered an industrial elevator at the Empire State Building. The accident occurred when a FedEx employee, who boarded the elevator before plaintiff, pushed the button to close the door. The electrical worker’s back faced the door. This caused the top portion of the bi-folding elevator door to strike the construction worker in the head. He sustained serious injuries. The injured construction worker sued FedEx to recover for his injuries and damages.
Who’s to Blame for the Elevator Accident?
Plaintiff alleged the FedEx employee’s negligence caused his elevator construction accident. This argument was supported by a video of the accident. The video showed the FedEx employee push the elevator button. This caused the bi-parting doors to close and strike plaintiff in the head. FedEx moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that plaintiff has not alleged any specific actions attributable to FedEx, which could have caused the accident. Furthermore, FedEx contended that its employee merely pushed a button. This triggered the closing of the elevator doors.
FedEx also argued that even if by pushing the button its employee caused the accident, its employee did not owe any duty to plaintiff. Further, it argued that in cases where a person injured by a closing door recovers from such person, the tortfeasor is an employee whose job responsibilities include the duty of opening and closing doors, thus creating a relationship and attendant duty. FedEx further argued that its courier was not an employee of the Empire State Building. He was thus not responsible for safely operating the elevator. FedEx argued that to find otherwise, would impose a duty on all passengers in an elevator. All passengers would need to operate the doors carefully or to be subject to tort liability in elevator accidents.
The Judge’s Decision
The judge granted FedEx’s motion to dismiss the elevator construction accident lawsuit. It held that FedEx’s employee did not operate the elevator. He was merely a passenger. Therefore he owed no duty to plaintiff or other passengers on the elevator. The judge explained that generally, a duty relationship arises only “where there is a relationship either between defendant and a third-person tortfeasor that encompasses defendant’s actual control of the third person’s actions, or between defendant and plaintiff that requires defendant to protect plaintiff from the conduct of others.”
The critical common characteristic shared by these relationships is that “the defendant’s relationship with either the tortfeasor or the plaintiff places the defendant in the best position to protect against the risk of harm and the specter of limitless liability is not present because the class of potential plaintiffs to whom the duty is owed is circumscribed by the relationship.” The judge further explained that the gratuitous conduct exception gives rise to liability only when the defendant’s affirmative action adversely affected plaintiff and defendant failed to act reasonably. However, a defendant is liable for breach of an “assumed duty” only when plaintiff “shows reliance on the defendant’s course of conduct, such that the defendant’s conduct placed him or her in a more vulnerable position than he or she would otherwise have been in had the defendant done nothing.
The lower court held that in the absence of an affirmative undertaking by the FedEx employee directed at plaintiff or reliance by plaintiff on the FedEx employee’s conduct, the FedEx employee did not assume a duty to plaintiff to use reasonable care when pushing the elevator button. Therefore, the lower court entered the summary judgment for FedEx dismissing the plaintiff’s claim. Plaintiff appealed.
The Elevator Accident Appeal
On the appeal, the Second Department held that given the unique nature of this bi-folding industrial elevator door, the FedEx courier had a duty to use reasonable care under the circumstances to avoid closing the door in a manner that would cause injury to persons entering the elevator. The Second Department further held that the complaint was viable because the FedEx employee was negligent in pressing the button to close the door while facing away from the doorway without allowing himself to verify that no one was entering the elevator. Therefore, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision. They denied FedEx’s motion for summary judgment. The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. If you suffer an elevator construction accident, contact The Platta Law Firm today.