Elevators are a common source of liability for commercial properties and the parties who own, operate and maintain those properties.  The failure to properly inspect and care for elevators can lead to liability for all those involved with their use.  The liability analysis imposed by our courts is fact sensitive.  General legal principals of premise liability apply requiring a demonstration of actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition to impose liability.  Recently in McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 825, the Appellate Division upheld a trial court’s application of these principals granting a summary judgment motion in favor of defendants when the plaintiff could not establish either actual or constructive notice of a malfunction in an elevator’s electrical eye that caused an elevator door to close prematurely. 

The plaintiff, Maureen McDaid was injured when she fell after being struck by a closing elevator door in her condominium development where she lived.  The elevator doors had two (2) safety features.  The first was a rubber safety edge located along the side of the doors, designed to retract upon contact.  The second was an electric eye that acted as a motion detector at different heights that would reopen the doors if motion was detected in its path.  A malfunction in the electrical eye was at issue as the cause of the accident.

The lawsuit on behalf of the Plaintiff named as defendants the property owner, Aztec West Condominium Association, the property manager, Preferred Management, Inc. and the elevator’s service company, Bergen Hydraulic Elevator.  The Plaintiff’s expert concluded that the electric eye system on the elevator was not working properly at the time of the accident. At the conclusion of discovery the defendants moved for summary judgment primarily on the basis that Plaintiff did not establish either actual or constructive notice of the alleged malfunction before the accident and as such they could not be deemed liable.

The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and the Appellate Division confirmed. The Appellate Division relying heavily on the trial court’s opinion addressed three (3) arguments on appeal.  First, the decision focused on the fact that there was no evidence that the electric eye was malfunctioning prior to the accident. Thus the lack of any actual or constructive notice was fatal to the Plaintiff’s claim.  Second, both courts found that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, Latin for “the thing speaks for itself,” did not permit an inference of negligence to satisfy a prima facie case of negligence.  Again, the trial court reasoned and the Appellate Division confirmed that the facts did not invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur because the electrical eye, as a mechanical device, is subject to failure time to time unrelated to negligence of any party. This prohibits the Plaintiff from establishing under res ipsa loquitur that the occurrence would ordinarily not occur absent negligence and that it is more probable than not that negligence of the defendants was the cause of the accident. Third, the Appellate Division found that the Plaintiff’s assertion that the defendants were negligent for not upgrading the elevator’s safety system was baseless because it complied with all standards, was inspected and approved by the appropriate authorities and no local, state or national code required any upgrade.

The attorneys at Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst & Doukas, LLP are well versed in handling cases involving elevator and escalator accidents.  For more information please feel free to contact Joseph V. Leone, Esq. at 732-545-4434 extension 2011 or jleone@hoaglandlongo.com.