Elevators are among the tremendously useful inventions of the modern era. Indeed, buildings would have never reached even half of the astronomical heights they have attained in the elevator’s absence. Along with being a modern necessity, however, elevators can be incredibly dangerous when not properly maintained. Although a shoddy cable breaking is the most worrisome concern, even more minor failures in elevator upkeep can lead to injury. Indeed, the smaller risks posed by poor elevator maintenance were at the center of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Hill v. Cole CC Kennesaw GA, LLC.
Hill arose from a trip and fall accident at a building where the plaintiff was employed. On the day of the accident, an elevator repair technician employed by Kone, Inc. performed preventative maintenance work on the elevator at issue as well as three others located in the building. At around 5 p.m., after purportedly completing this maintenance work, the technician left. However, about five hours later, the employee entered the elevator with a coworker. The trip was uneventful except that when the elevator reached the desired floor, the base of the elevator did not line up with the edge of the floor. Unaware of the mis-leveling issue, the plaintiff tripped while exiting and hit her head against a metal pole located inside the elevator. The plaintiff’s coworker pressed another button and was returned to the lobby, where she sought assistance for the plaintiff. After this string of events, which included the plaintiff’s journey to the emergency room, a different building occupant noticed the leveling problem and reported the issue to management.
Although Kone was responsible for performing maintenance on the elevator, which was the subject of a different appeal, this action was brought against the owner of the building where the accident occurred and the company that managed the building. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that these defendants had no notice of the elevator defect prior to the accident, had a program for regularly inspecting and servicing the elevator, had no superior knowledge regarding the functioning of the elevator, and could not be held vicariously liable for Kone’s alleged negligence. The plaintiff appealed this ruling, arguing that there was evidence that the defendants had actual and superior knowledge of the defect and that any lack of evidence demonstrating the defendants’ notice of the defect on the date of the accident was caused by the defendants’ spoliation of evidence.
The Court of Appeals, as they did in their earlier decision regarding Kone’s liability, reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Under Georgia law, the owner of a building with an operable elevator has a duty to protect users of the elevator, which entails that the owner “exercise extraordinary diligence on behalf of himself and his agents to protect the lives and persons of his passengers. . . . [T]his duty of extraordinary diligence cannot be delegated to a third party [and] . . . remains in place regardless of whether a third party acquires a duty by undertaking maintenance or repair.” Gaffney v. EQK Realty Investors, 213 Ga. App. 653, 655 (1994). Georgia law places a concomitant duty on property managers. See Ramey v. Pritchett, 90 Ga. App. 745, 751 (1954) (“An agent who undertakes the sole and complete . . . management of [a] principal’s premises is liable to third persons, to whom a duty is owing on the part of the owner, for injuries resulting from his negligence in failing to . . . keep the premises . . . safe . . . .” (citation omitted)). The defendants argued that summary judgment was proper because there was a lack of evidence demonstrating negligence on their part. Indeed, they contended that the contractual relationship they had with Kone, which required Kone to perform regular maintenance and repairs on the building’s elevators, was sufficient to meet any duty of care they owed to the plaintiff. However, as noted above, the duty that Georgia law places on these defendants cannot be delegated. Therefore, evidence of Kone’s possible negligence, as was found in the prior decision, could be ascribed to the defendants. Moreover, despite the defendants’ protestations otherwise, the evidence also indicated that a Kone technician had discussed issues related to elevator leveling issues with a representative for the building management company. Accordingly, the trial court erred in finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to these defendants’ possible negligence.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff with respect to the spoliation issue. Pursuant to Georgia law, “[a]ny elevator . . . involved in an accident described in . . . shall be removed from service at the time of the accident” and “shall not be . . . placed back in service until inspected by a certified inspector.” O.C.G.A. § 8-2-106. Beyond assuring safety for other potential users, this rule also functions to preserve the evidence that can be gleaned from the inspector’s report. In this case, the evidence showed that the elevator was moved prior to inspection. Although the defendants argued that there was no evidence of a defect at the time of the incident, the court found that the defendants’ failure to comply with O.C.G.A. § 8-2-106 interfered with the inspection process, and therefore the evidence that could be gleaned from the inspection was not useful. Even though the defendants contended that the movement of the elevator was the result of another tenant’s use, the court found the argument unavailing, since the use of the elevator nevertheless led to spoliation, and it was their duty to ensure that it not be used. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for trial.
As the law of our state demonstrates, elevator maintenance is important, and one’s duty to protect the safety of those who use an elevator under one’s control is not a responsibility that can be lightly taken. Indeed, Georgia law imposes these and many other responsibilities on property owners, and if you’ve recently been harmed on another party’s property, you should consider consulting a lawyer to determine whether any liability exists. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have considerable experience with Georgia law in this area and are ready to help you assess the viability of a possible claim. If you are interested in a free case evaluation, feel free to contact us.