After enough years as a personal injury lawyer, you learn to fear certain mechanical equipment and consumer products. Growing up, I loved bouncing on the trampoline, and as a teenager I spent many summer days going up and down ladders as part of my construction job, but now I have seen so many clients come in with devastating fall injuries from both that I can't bear the thought of my own kids on a trampoline and I can't take two steps even up a kitchen stool without checking and rechecking my footing and making sure the stool is level and not on a slippery surface. Seeing the world differently is just part of the job.
One of the hidden dangers I didn't really appreciate until I worked as a lawyer are escalators. There are over 600,000 escalators in the United States - several in every shopping mall, subway station, hospital, and store that's more than one floor - and we ride them so casually that we forget just how dangerous they truly are. There are no solid figures for the number of escalator accidents that cause injuries every year, but nearly twenty years ago the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that every year there were likely more than 7,300 escalator accidents resulting in injuries significant enough to require medical attention and hospitalization. One study, published in 2006, estimated there were an average 2,000 injuries to children every year, with the greatest risk for children 5 years of age or younger.
The Two Main Types Of Escalator Accidents, Falls and Entrapments, Are Often Caused By The Failure To Inspect Or To Repair Broken Escalators
Fall accidents, the most common type of escalator accident, are sometimes solely the responsibility of the person who was injured, such as when a person is intoxicated while riding on the escalator, and so their sense of balance is too compromised for them to stand while riding and their judgment is too impaired for them to hold onto the handrail. Many fall accidents, however, are the result of the machine malfunctioning. In many cases, the escalator suddenly stopped, sped up, or jerked back and forth. Some times, the handrail beings to move at a different speed from the steps, effectively yanking the riders - who are appropriately holding the handrail - down to the ground.
As a legal matter, the owner of a property, the store operating the property, and the company that is supposed to inspect and maintain the escalator are not automatically liable for fall injuries. Instead, the injured person has to prove in the lawsuit that those companies failed to properly and regularly inspect the escalator and that an inspection would have revealed the problem with the escalator. In our view, this rule is unfair: we believe that every invitee to a business is entitled to safe use of the premises. Nonetheless, we don't make the legal rules, and so we pursue escalator cases vigorously, hiring human factors, biomechanics, and engineering experts to prove that the escalator, and not the rider, caused the fall, and that a proper inspection would have revealed the problem and proper maintenance would have fixed it.
In entrapment accidents, a rider's foot, hand, or clothing - most typically a foot or shoelace - is caught between either the steps and the skirt board on the side or between the steps and the comb plate at the end. Like in fall cases, in entrapment cases, despite the horrific injuries (there is usually some degree of amputation, sometimes death) the plaintiff still has to prove that the escalator was defectively designed or maintained, and that, if the escalator had been more properly maintained, the accident would not have happened.
In our opinion, based upon the standards applicable to all escalators in the United States and upon the knowledge that escalator manufacturers have had for years, there should never be any serious entrapment injuries. Appallingly, many entrapment injuries are caused by property owners or escalator maintenance companies failing to use simple, legally-required safety features. Every escalatory in America is supposed to have a comb plate across the top (where the moving stairs pass under the landing point), but in many accidents the comb plate was never installed, or it broke or fell off and the owner of the property never bothered to replace it. In other cases, something as simple and obvious as a loose screw managed to catch part of a rider's clothing, causing them to fall and be drug into the escalator. In 2009, CBS took an escalator safety expert out to several public places, and he identified serious safety problems with more than half of the escalators, saying he would have shut them down immediately if he had the authority.
Inexpensive Upgrades Can Prevent Entrapment Injuries
Moreover, for years now additional technology has existed that can prevent entrapment injuries entirely, but escalator manufacturers and property owners have simply failed to install it because they don't want to pay the modest costs. Some example safety technologies are:
- comb plate impact switches, which stop the escalator if an object gets caught underneath the comb plate;
- handrail inlet switches, which stop the escalator if something is caught at the end of the handrail; and,
- deflector brushes running along the sides of the skirt board, which keep shoelaces, garments, and bags from getting caught on the side of the escalator as it travels upward;
Using those inexpensive technologies would dramatically reduce the incidence of entrapment injuries, particularly the horrific "caught shoelace" injuries that make the news every few months, and we think they should all be legally required and states should put aside money to check escalator inspection logs and to perform their own spot-checks at shopping malls and large retail outlets. Unfortunately, that's not the law yet, and so for our entrapment cases we have to bring in all of the same experts as the fall cases, plus engineers who designed escalators and elevators to explain why the company should have used those safety features.
I hesitate to write it, but in escalator accidents witnesses invariably use the same horrifying term to describe what they saw: "meat grinder." It's shocking we let that type of danger persist in public places in the 21st century. It's time local, state, and the federal government step in and prevent anymore "meat grinder" accidents by mandating the appropriate safety features on escalators and actually going out and making sure they're being used.