For over 80 years now, kids have been killed or permanently injured due to the neglect of home elevator manufacturers. This has been going on since the 1930s, yet nothing has been done to fix this problem.
The companies that design and manufacture these types of elevators, for use in homes and small apartment buildings, are well aware of these dangers. Children have been getting entrapped between the hoistway (or swing) and elevator doors, crushed, injured and killed for decades, despite warnings dating back to the 1930s, industry standards that addressed the issue almost sixty years ago, and a low-cost, post-installation fix.
When the Helvey family purchased this home elevator they were never warned about child endangerment or explained any risks with them.
Christmas eve of 2010, Jacob Helvey, 3-years-old at the time, tried to take the small National Wheel-O-Vator elevator in his Atlanta home to follow his mother to the second floor. He accidentally entrapped himself between the hoistway door, which in home elevators is a swing-type door that resembles a closet or room door, and the accordion-style door that encloses the elevator itself. Once that outer door closes, it automatically locks (a safety feature to ensure the hoistway door cannot be opened while the elevator is in use).
Helvey, who was 3 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 31 pounds, had his back against the accordion door, and his head turned sideways in its valley. His mom heard a commotion downstairs and ran to check it out. As the elevator rose, and re-leveled itself, Jacob’s body fell through the space between the sill and the elevator car. When it stopped, the elevator was on Jacob’s back, with his head above the sill, compressed for ten minutes while his mother pried open the door. A neighbor and police used a shovel and 2 x 6 to ease the elevator off his small body. He suffered brain damage. Jacob, now 5-years-old, is progressing slowly, according to his parents.
Jacob is considered one of the ‘lucky’ ones. He survived this tragedy, which, more often than not, has killed children ranging from 3 to 12 years old.
The total number of injuries and deaths are unknown. But in the early 1990s, the Otis Elevator Company revealed to the plaintiffs in a New Jersey case, the deaths or severe injuries to 34 children from 1983-1993 in the southern New York and New Jersey area alone. Industry experts say that nearly all these could have been prevented by the installation of a space shield, which fills the gap, making it impossible for anyone to fit between the two doors.
The Helvey family has been trying to push the industry and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to take more substantive steps to ensure that this problem is addressed. They met with the CPSC in March to present them with detailed briefing packages on the history of this design defect and its horrific results. Five months later, they are still waiting for action. It is hard to believe this goes on in our country.
Another tragic incident occurred on August 23, 2001, where eight-year-old twins Tucker and Ellie Smith, vacationing with their family at the Bethel Inn and Country Club in Bethel, Maine, decided to take the Inn’s circa 1930 Otis elevator to the second floor, where their father returned to get the room key.
When a maid called the elevator to the second floor, the interlock locked the swinging door, similar to the elevator in the Helvey case, and Tucker was trapped in the 7-and-a-half-inch space between that and the collapsible gate, dying of massive head injuries.
Although Otis initially disclosed only seven child deaths, it has now been determined by Judith Rodner, a New Jersey attorney who had represented a 12-year-old child who had died in a similar fashion, that they knew of the dangers of this elevator system.
In 1931, Otis obtained a patent for an inexpensive 6-inch space guard to prevent child entrapment. An inter-office memo from 1943 from Otis’ General Service Manager reiterated the dangers of excessive space between the hoistway doors and the threshold, which the company first warned about in 1932:
“With the bevel type shield at the bottom of the doors, it is still possible (and in many cases has been reported) for a child to occupy the space between the hoistway door and the car gate by simply supporting itself (or by hanging) on the door hardware and raising its weight above the shield. Any person pressing a button at the time (on single automatic push elevators) would cause a serious accident. Where moveable platforms are concerned this condition is even more serious, because the gate does not have to be closed. In all cases the owner should be instructed to remove the projecting doorware.”
However, in 1950, almost two decades later, Otis General Service Manager again noted “recent occurrence of accidents” caused by the excessive space between the hoistway and elevator car doors, which reinforced the horrific fact that many of these elevators remained intact, and no improvements were made.
Once Otis’ attorney and attorney for the opposition filed a joint motion to lift the protective order in one of the elevator lawsuits, more shocking information was revealed. There were names of 34 children who were injured or killed, as well as a statement from an Otis maintenance worker about dismantling elevators in a city in New Jersey just so they could retrieve the bodies of dead children, as well as the intentional destruction of a hard drive with 70 years worth of records including more child deaths.
It’s no question why Otis wanted to file a protective order to prevent the public, the judge, or the jury from getting their hands on this information. Yet even after it was discovered, nothing was done.
When the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) adopted A-17 in 1955, which was the first safety code for private residence elevators, it addressed the issue of excess clearance, by limiting the clearance to two inches between the hoistway doors or gates and the hoistway edge of the landing, and four inches between the hoistway face of the landing door or gate and the car door or gate.
Otis is the world’s largest manufacturer and servicer of people-moving products. It has been manufacturing elevators since the 1850s. “Today, Otis has some of the best safety records in the vertical transportation industry.”
If Otis has “one of the best safety records” in the industry and managed to keep the elevators in service, which has once been described as “serial killers,” what can we say about the other companies? There are numerous elevator manufacturers, none of which are regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Even with stricter standards going forward, there will still be thousands of existing elevators left unchanged. While Otis tried unsuccessfully for decades to warn owners and other manufacturers, the threat to children remains.
In 2003, Wheel-O-Vator was one of the manufacturers Otis tried to warn. In a 2004 letter to Gregory L. Harmon, CemcoLift Elevators, an Otis-owned company, again warned that elevators with excessive clearances must be remedied with space guards. The letter indicated that there had been “a number of tragic accidents,” including three child deaths since 1995 and urged:
“CEMCOLIFTS RECOMMENDS IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS: (1) that swing door elevators be installed in accordance with the ASME Safety Code requirements; and (2) that any existing swing door elevators having an excessive space as described herein and in the attached brochure be repaired as soon as possible. Until repaired, any swing door elevator with excessive space should be shut down.
REMEMBER: THE EXISTENCE OF AN EXCESSIVE SPACE BETWEEN THE HOISTWAY DOOR AND CAR GATE MAY RESULT IN SERIOUS OR FATAL INJURY!”
In the Helvey case, ThyssenKrupp tried to blame the excessive clearance on the installers. Engineers tested that claim. The clearance in the gap was actually 7 ½ inches, not the 5 that is the industry standard.
A spokesman for National Wheel-O-Vator Co., a division of ThyssenKrupp said, “Each of our products pass rigorous testing in our labs and out in the field for the ultimate in reliability. Plus, the design and functionality of our solutions have won us several product design awards.”
As Jacob Helvey’s mom said, “It just makes us sick to our stomachs. We want the code to change, because there is no reason to have that much space. The word needs to go out, because no child should have to go through what our child is going through.”
Obviously, the elevator industry has proven itself incapable of dealing with the problem. Too bad this is at the expense of innocent children.
What do you think about this article? Feel free to leave comments or questions. For more information, contact a Gacovino Lake attorney at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).