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Proving Negligence And Res Ipsa Loquitor In Elevator Accident Cases

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Elevator accidents in New York are more frequent than people think. One minute you are riding in an elevator and the next, the elevator makes a sudden and unexpected motion that causes you to stumble and fall.

Elevators are complex machines with thousands of interdependent parts and proper preventative maintenance is essential to the proper operation of an elevator. Our experienced New York personal injury lawyers who handle elevator accident cases know all too well how serious an elevator accident can be. Our firm is one of the few Westchester lawyers who handle elevator accident cases.

In recognition of the fact that most elevator accidents occur because of inadequate maintenance, the law in New York has recognized that the theory of res ipsa loquitur applies to these cases, in addition to negligence theories of recovery. Res Ipsa is an old latin term, which means the thing speaks for itself. So since an elevator malfunctioned, it means that there was inadequate maintenance. In addition to the theory of Res Ipsa, a case of negligence is often asserted and to establish negligence often it must be proven that the building owner or elevator company caused a dangerous condition in the elevator or had notice of a dangerous condition which it failed to repair, including a defective or misaligned component.

In one case the Court allowed a case to go forward against a building owner because a witnesses testified that they observed elevator defect two months before accident that raises a triable issue of fact regarding the owners’ negligence.

Looking at the complaint history of an elevator is often useful in proving that the elevator was not properly maintained. The New York Court of Appeals has held that an elevator company which agrees to maintain an elevator in safe operating condition may be liable to a passenger for failure to correct conditions of which it has knowledge or failure to use reasonable care to discover and correct a condition which it ought to have found. Evidence that an elevator malfunctioned many times during the six months preceding an elevator accident raises an inference that the elevator company negligently performed its undertaking to repair and maintain the subject elevator.

Negligence under New York law is the failure to use ordinary care to perform a contractual duty or to maintain or repair an elevator. The New York Courts have recognized that there is an inference that an elevator company negligently performed its obligation to repair and maintain an elevator, where that the elevator malfunctioned and was taken out of service repeatedly in the months before the elevator accident. Where there are numerous service tickets for the subject elevator that indicates that the building owner had some level of awareness that the subject elevator had a persistent condition requiring service.

Res Ipsa allows negligence to be proven through circumstantial evidence since the elevator malfunctioned in a certain way, that means it was probably not adequately serviced and maintained. To establish a case of res ipsa (1) the event must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant and (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action by the plaintiff. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is applicable against elevator maintenance company because essential elements of doctrine established by circumstantial evidence. Proof that the rapid descent and abrupt, misaligned stop of the elevator was an occurrence that would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence, that the maintenance and service of the elevator was within the exclusive control of the owner, and that no act or negligence on the plaintiff’s part contributed to the happening of the accident, is a basis for liability under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

In a recent case where an elevator suddenly stopped and began to shake and vibrate, the Appellate Division, Second Department held that there was an issue of fact as to whether the malfunction is an event that would not ordinarily occur were due care exercised in the elevator’s maintenance.

The”exclusivity” requirement for res ipsa is met where a building owner relied upon the elevator maintenance company’s “expertise to inspect and maintain the intricate devices of the elevator in reasonably safe operating condition, pursuant to the service contract. A jury may reasonably infer that the elevator door malfunction is an event that would not occur in the absence of negligence.

Courts consistently have applied the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur in cases where the subject elevator is alleged to have dropped, overshot floors, misleveled or otherwise demonstrated erratic functioning and when elevator suddenly dropped, came to an abrupt stop or passed the designated floor, misleveled, stopped suddenly at another floor or to shaked and vibrated. Since elevators do not ordinarily behave this way in the absence of some negligence, their actions create an inference of negligence through the application of res ipsa loquitor. In another case, the Court recognized that the erratic elevator’s erratic behavior was not an ordinary experience, but, constituted an event which would not ordinarily occur were due care exercised by a building owner or elevator repair company.

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