Elevator Law

Many of us have had the experience of riding on an elevator that jolts, or maybe even does not appear entirely level when the doors open. Unfortunately this can lead to injuries, and inevitably claims and lawsuits. Maryland’s highest court this week reviewed again the law on the duties of an elevator owner/operator in the case of The Johns Hopkins Hospital v. Correia. The Court reaffirmed the high standard of care that must be followed.

The Court’s opinion indicates that Ms. Correia was a passenger in an elevator at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when due to a mechanical defect the elevator came to a jarring halt. Ms. Correia immediately felt back pain and was taken to the emergency room. Eventually she had surgery on her back and hip as the alleged result of the elevator injury. She sued the hospital and an elevator maintenance company the hospital had contracted with a couple of months before her accident. The suit claimed that the hospital and maintenance company failed to heed numerous warnings about problems with the elevator and certain elevator parts, and their negligence caused her injury.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury over objection by the hospital’s lawyer that the hospital as the owner of the elevator owed to passengers the highest degree of care and diligence practicable under the circumstances to guard against injury caused by the elevator. The jury was told that the maintenance company was held to a different standard of reasonable care. The jury found in favor of Ms. Correia and her husband against the hospital and awarded them damages, , but found in favor of the maintenance company. The verdict in favor of the maintenance company was not appealed, but the hospital noted an appeal to challenge the jury instruction on the legal standard owed by the elevator owner.

After the intermediate appellate court upheld the judgment, the Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case. The hospital acknowledged that Maryland case law going back to the early 1900s supported that the legal standard owed by an elevator owner was the highest degree of care as the trial judge had said. It argued, however, that those opinions came from a time when there was actually a person operating most elevators, and that changes in technology to where all elevators these days operate automatically calls for a change in the law to just the reasonable care standard applicable in most negligence cases. Particularly since most elevator owners rely on a maintenance company, the hospital argued the standard should be changed.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the Maryland case law regarding elevators. It noted that this standard arose by comparing elevator owners to common carriers like railroads or bus companies, since an elevator carries passengers and is a means of personal transportation. The standard for such parties, because they are charged with the safety of passengers, is this highest standard that is practical. The Court noted cases, as early as 1930 and as recent as 1987, that deal with automatic elevators and apply the same standard.

The Court refused to change the law, and upheld the same standard of highest care. It noted that if anything, owners of elevators know that people of all ages and level of experience operate elevators, which reinforces the need for the rule. It quoted data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission that there were over 19,000 elevator injuries reported in 2007, which certainly suggests elevators are no safer these days due to technology. This illustrates that changes in technology do not mean that old legal principles still do not apply.