Washington Escalator Owners and Operators Are Common Carriers

Many escalators are used each day, and they generally function as expected.  They require appropriate maintenance and service to do so, however.  When they are riding an escalator, people can be seriously injured.  Washington premises liability attorneys know that an owner that fails to properly maintain escalator equipment may be liable for the resulting injuries. In fact, in Washington, the owner or operator of an escalator has the heightened duty of care of a common carrier. A Washington appeals court recently considered a case in which the court dismissed a personal injury case involving an escalator.

The plaintiffs were injured when an escalator step jammed.  The escalator was in a mall and right outside a department store.  Witnesses stated they heard a screeching noise.  The steps then began piling up, and the escalator collapsed on itself. The escalator’s fail-safe mechanisms did not activate to stop the escalator.

The plaintiffs sued the department store owner and the owners of the mall and escalator.  The department store contracted with an elevator maintenance company for service and maintenance of the escalator.

An investigator from the Department of Labor and Industries found loose screws, bolts, and brackets that caused the skirt panel to get in the way of the steps.  The maintenance company had not maintained proper maintenance logs or performed required maintenance.  There was a history of various mechanical issues in the escalator.  The appeals court found that it was “undisputed that neglectful maintenance of the escalator caused the injuries.” The Chief Elevator Inspector found the lack of maintenance and inaccurate safety testing resulted in the malfunction, and an engineering firm hired by one of the defendants confirmed these findings.  The plaintiffs’ expert found the maintenance company’s failure to recognize obvious equipment defects caused the incident.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court noted that escalator owners and operators are common carriers.  Common carriers owe the highest degree of care toward their passengers, consistent with the time and place and the practical operation of the services.

The defendants argued they could not be held vicariously liable for the negligence of the maintenance company.  However, owners and operators are not relieved of the duty they owe to the passengers just because they delegate maintenance to an independent contractor.  The duty of care they owe is non-delegable, and they can be vicariously liable for a contractor’s acts or omissions in performing the services.

The appeals court noted that vicarious liability is not strict liability.  The plaintiffs had made a prima facie showing of negligence.

The appeals court also addressed the defendants’ argument that they would only be liable if they had notice of the malfunctions or defects.  The appeals court distinguished the case cited by the defendants from the present case.  In the previous case, the plaintiff’s theory of negligence was a failure to warn passengers of a hazard and a failure to properly equip the escalator with safety features to prevent injuries.  The jury instruction in that case included language requiring notice, but the appeals court found that the notice requirement was not applicable to all escalator cases.  A breach of the duty of care to maintain the elevator did not depend on the defendants having notice of the resulting malfunctions.  The appeals court found the defendants would be vicariously liable for injuries resulting from the maintenance company’s neglectful maintenance, regardless of whether they were aware of the loose screws and other problems.  The appeals court also found that it was immaterial that escalator repairs must be performed by a licensed technician.

The owners of the mall and escalator argued that the department store was in complete control and possession of the premises and the escalator at the time of the incident.  The appeals court noted that their liability was based on their status as a common carrier, rather than as the owner of the premises, and there was sufficient evidence showing they were the owners of the escalator.  The appeals court found the defendants owed the same duty to escalator passengers and would be vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of the maintenance company.

The appeals court reversed the summary judgment.

As this case shows, escalator owners and operators owe a high duty of care to their passengers to properly maintain the escalator.  This duty goes beyond the duty of a property owner because they are common carriers.  They cannot, therefore, pass the duty off to a maintenance contractor.  The owner and operator of an escalator is vicariously liable if the contractor fails to properly maintain the escalator.

If you have been injured on someone else’s property due to their negligence, a skilled Washington personal injury attorney can help you pursue the compensation you deserve.  Call Blair and Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.

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