Thankfully, elevator accidents are rare. But if you should get hurt in an elevator accident, you need to know who might be responsible from a legal standpoint. There are several entities that could potentially be liable for an elevator’s faulty condition:
Let’s examine the potential liability of each of these entities.
Manufacturers of products such as elevators are legally responsible for the quality of their products, even if the product’s warranty has expired. A manufacturer’s liability for a defective product is generally called products liability law in most states.
Products liability law holds not just the manufacturer of the product liable, but also the manufacturers of the product’s component parts, the wholesaler, and the retailer. The precise terminology of the law may differ from state to state, but in general an entity will be held liable under products liability law if the product contains an inherent defect that is unreasonably dangerous and that causes injury to a foreseeable user of the product.
Products liability generally comprises three separate types of product defects: design defects, manufacturing defects, and marketing defects (i.e., negligent instructions that came with the product and/or a failure to warn the purchaser about hidden dangers in the product).
Unlike most personal injury law, products liability law is not always based on negligence. If a product contains an inherent defect that is unreasonably dangerous, the manufacturer and seller will be held liable under products liability law even if they took all reasonable care in their manufacture and sale of the product.
So, a claim of products liability for a defective elevator could be made against the elevator manufacturer, the maker of any component parts that failed, and any companies that sold or resold the elevator.
If an elevator is maintained and/or repaired by outside contractors, those contractors could be liable for their negligence if their carelessness contributed to the elevator accident.
Let’s look at maintenance first. Elevators, like all equipment, have recommended maintenance schedules. If, for example, the maintenance company forgets to oil some important part of the elevator like the cable, and it seizes up or breaks during use because of lack of oil, that is a good case for negligence on the part of the maintenance company.
Similarly, if an outside repair company is negligent in its repairs of the elevator, it can be held liable if those negligent repairs caused the accident. Let’s say that, for example, the repair company fixed the elevator cable, but did not secure it properly, and the cable slipped. In that case, the repair company would be liable for any injuries that occurred because of the slippage of the cable.
In general, building owners must act reasonably in maintaining and using their elevators. They can be found negligent for several different shortcomings in their ownership and use of their elevators.
First, they must maintain their elevator properly. If the building owner does not follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule, the owner will very likely be found negligent. Further, the building owner must use a qualified maintenance company. Elevators are complex pieces of machinery. Building owners cannot have the maintenance done by their 17 year-old nephew during summer vacation; elevators must be serviced by qualified professionals. Failure to use a qualified elevator maintenance company is pretty clearly negligence.
Second, the building owner must repair a broken elevator. If the building owner knows or reasonably should have known that its elevator was in need of repair, it will generally be found negligent.
Third, a reasonable building owner should consider taking a broken elevator out of service until it is fixed, depending on what repairs are needed. If it is an extremely minor repair -- let's say the lights that illuminate the floor number buttons are too dim -- then perhaps the building owner need not take the elevator out of service. But if the problem is something like the elevator is groaning and shuddering when in use, that elevator should be shut down immediately. Failure to take an elevator out of service when it is obviously in bad shape would probably be deemed negligent.