Although most people’s natural reaction to hearing about a tragic elevator accident is to assume that the building owner, the building management company, or the elevator repair company are automatically liable for the accident, this assumption is, generally speaking, unwarranted – at least as far as New York law is concerned. In fact, unless a plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendants either knew or should have known, which in legal terms is called “notice,” about the particular problem that caused the accident, yet failed to remedy the defective condition in a timely fashion so as to prevent this incident from occurring, the claim will likely be denied.

So how does a plaintiff go about proving that? Generally, it is through a review of the elevator’s maintenance and repair records. Another source that plaintiffs often rely upon to prove the defendant’s negligence in an elevator accident case is a review of the local building department’s records of inspections and violations issued with respect to that specific elevator in order to determine whether the problem that purportedly caused the accident had occurred in the recent past. For cases that occur in any of the Five Boroughs of New York City, these records can be obtained from the Department of Buildings website.

That being said, there are also some very limited circumstances where a plaintiff can prove his or her case through the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which is fancy legalese for the principle that the only possible explanation for this accident is the defendant’s negligence. That doctrine is only applicable, however, if certain strict criteria are met, including that the elevator remained under the defendant’s exclusive custody and control, and that the accident was of the kind which does not occur absent negligence.

Finally, if the building retained an independent elevator maintenance company, that company is charged with the responsibility of using reasonable care with respect to any work that they do on the elevator. Thus, although the elevator maintenance contractor’s liability is also founded on the same “notice” factors set forth above, namely, that the plaintiff would have to prove that the company knew about the specific problem that caused the elevator accident, they can also be held liable in two other circumstances, both of which typically require expert testimony: (1) that a proper inspection of the elevator would have revealed the defect; or, (2) that the elevator company’s representative performed the repair of the specific problem negligently.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer