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Elevator Malfunction Causes Woman to Die from Third Degree Burns–Is There Legal Liability?

The death of a Chicago woman who stepped off an elevator in her apartment building–and into a blazing inferno–highlights the need for fire sensors in all elevators.

Shantel McCoy, 32, who was returning to her 12th-floor apartment on Lake Shore Drive, died from third degree burns to her skin plus lung burns after the elevator doors opened and she was hit with 1,500-degree air heated from gas and fire fumes coming from another apartment, according to a Chicago Fire Department spokesman. The fire apparently began inside an apartment on that floor–but although the residents managed to escape the apartment, the front door did not close behind them. This allowed the fire to spread into the hallway and heat the air throughout the floor to deadly temperatures. Nine other residents were injured in the blaze as well.

But the elevator accident never should have happened, says one longtime elevator-industry consultant. Charles Buckman notes that the United States’ engineering safety code requires elevators to have fire sensors on every floor and in the motor room. But in this building, Buckman speculates that “they must not have been fitted with sensors.”

In fact, the 21-story building, among Chicago’s older high-rises, was not required to meet safety codes that were established in 1975, according to the city’s building department spokesman. The high-rise was built sometime in the 1950s.

Chicago’s city council recently voted to put off until 2015 the deadline for all buildings to comply with a new ordinance requiring building-wide alarm systems that automatically trigger elevators to descend to the ground floor and shut down.

Buckman, who works for consulting firm Doherty and Buckman of New Bern, North Carolina, says that even older buildings should be equipped with fire sensors that automatically shut down all elevators. “The elevator should not have been available to this lady” once a fire started, he says. “The elevators should have closed their doors, returned to the first floor and shut down so that no one could use them” once the sensors detected fire.

Having testified in numerous personal injury cases involving faulty elevators, Buckman has a harsh judgment this time: “In this case, somebody committed murder,” he alleges.

The building’s management company did not respond to requests for comment.

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injury suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.