In the U.S., elevator and escalator accidents kill about 30 people a year and seriously injure 17,000. The vast majority (90%) of these incidents involve elevators, which also account for well over half the injuries. There are an estimated 900,000 elevators in the U.S., each of which serves about 20,000 people annually. All U.S. elevators combined make about 18 billion passenger trips per year, mostly within retail, commercial, or residential buildings.
Elevator fatalities are quite rare. Compared to the number of people killed in elevator accidents per year, an equal number die in car crashes every 6 or 7 hours. Annually, about 1,600 people are killed by falling down the stairs. According to a 2009 report by Occupational Health and Safety, elevator safety features are responsible for the relatively low accidental death rate. Elevators have automatic braking systems near the top and bottom of the shaft that are backed up by electromagnetic brakes. A heavy duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft is designed to protect passengers if the elevator falls. In addition, elevators have 4 to 8 times as many cables supporting them than they actually need.
Although elevator accidents appear to be infrequent relative to their usage, these incidents can be devastating, even to those who survive them. Elevator deaths and injuries commonly occur when passengers become trapped between a floor and the elevator, when elevators fall, when doors open to an open shaft, and when elevator carriages are misaligned with the floor, causing exiting passengers to trip and fall. These are some of the problems and conditions that make elevators especially dangerous:
- Inadequate repairs and maintenance, or inspections performed by unqualified personnel.
- Risk of falling due to defective doors exposing an open shaft.
- Malfunction of the pulley system or mechanical defect or failure that causes a rapid drop within the shaft.
- Elevator control malfunction or faulty wiring that creates a risk of electrocution.
- Unbalanced leveling causing carriages to fail to line up with the floor.
- Defective wire systems causing fires and passenger entrapment due to heat or water from emergency sprinkler systems.
Because the Consumer Product and Safety Commission is not authorized to regulate them, elevators and their components are not subject to federal parts recalls or accident inspections. When an elevator or escalator manufacturer becomes aware of a product design defect, he is only required to notify equipment owners by certified mail. Nevertheless, various elevator manufacturers have been held liable in legal action following passenger injury or death:
- Abell Elevator. Brake failure killed an Ohio State University student in 2006. A subsequent inspection also determined that the elevator would not hold the amount of weight for which it was marketed and sold.
- Schindler Elevator. In Atlanta, an elevator car manufactured by Schindler and maintained by Otis Elevator failed to stop at the first floor and continued to drop. The passenger suffered permanent back injury when the car repeatedly bounced off the floor of the shaft.
- Viola Industries (now owned by International Elevator). A passenger was injured when a car fell several floors and crashed into the bottom of the shaft.
- Otis Elevator. A passenger suffered an ankle fracture when she exited an elevator that was misaligned with the floor.
- Arundel Elevator Company. Defective springs caused a system-wide mechanical failure in a bank of 6 elevators at University of Maryland Hospital. The university sued for negligence and the creation of substantial potential risk to passengers.
Statistically, elevators may be safer than an automobile trip or a walk down the stairs. But when elevators fail or malfunction, the experience can be costly to life and health as well as emotionally traumatic. If you have been hurt in an elevator accident, a qualified personal injury lawyer can help you determine if you have a cause of action against an elevator manufacturer, installer, or repairer.