99.9% of the time, elevators are harmless steel boxes which dutifully ferry us up and down through the bowels of skyscrapers and other large buildings. In a single office tower, apartment complex, or college dormitory, hundreds or thousands of people use an elevator on a daily basis. The Otis Elevator Company estimates that their brand alone carries six billion people — the world population — over a nine-day cycle. Every day of every year in every country, millions of people ride an elevator, never thinking about matters like dangerous equipment or premises liability.
That is because, the overwhelming majority of the time, elevator rides are perfectly safe and uneventful. The worst elevator mishap most people will ever face is being stuck between floors, playing with their phone for a few boring hours until maintenance arrives. Unfortunately, like anything in life, elevators are subject to flaws and errors — and when these flaws are errors are serious enough to cause a major malfunction, the result can be a tragic loss of life. In this blog entry, our wrongful death lawyers examine the sad, strange case of Dr. Hitoshi Nikaidoh, and decapitation caused by malfunctioning elevators.
How Safe are Elevators?
If you were to guess when elevators first came into use, what period of time might you land on? The early 20th century? The 19th century? Maybe even as early as the 16th or 15th century? In every case, you’d have missed the mark by a mile. Believe it or not, the elevator actually made its debut over a millennium ago. Historical records credit the first elevator to ancient Greek engineer and inventor Archimedes, who constructed a crude design utilizing hemp rope and manual power in the year 236 B.C.
Of course, elevators have come quite a long way since ancient times. Today’s elevators are powered not by mules and oxen, but by a technologically sophisticated system of hydraulics, pistons, and traction cables. Thanks to these innovations, modern elevators enjoy an excellent safety record. Only one in 12 million elevator rides is estimated to encounter a problem, and even then, the majority of those problems tend to be issues like sticking doors and forgetful buttons. Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to be injured or killed by a slip and fall accident on the stairs than by a ride in an elevator.
Nonetheless, there is still a statistical space, albeit a small one, for injury or even death to occur as a result of catastrophic elevator malfunction.
Tragically, that’s exactly what happened in the case of Dr. Hitoshi Nikaidoh.
Houston Doctor Decapitated by Malfunctioning Elevator
In 2003, Dr. Histoshi Nikaidoh was 35 years old. A promising young surgical resident, Nikaidoh often worked alongside colleague and physician’s assistant Karin Steinau at Christus St. Joseph Hospital in Houston.
On August 16th, Steinau was standing inside Elevator 14 on the second floor of the hospital’s George W. Strake Building. Waiting to make the leisurely ride from the second to the sixth floor, Steinau spotted Nikaidoh rushing toward the elevator to hop on board before the doors closed. She pushed a button to make the already sluggish elevator wait a few moments longer so that Nikaidoh could enter.
“Is it working today?” he asked.
“I hope so,” Steinau replied.
Four days earlier, Elevator 14 had been labeled with an Out of Service sign while maintenance personnel worked on the lift. The sign and the workers had since disappeared, leading Steinau and Nikaidoh to believe the elevator had been given a clean bill of health. For Nikaidoh, it would prove to be a fatal mistake.
As Nikaidoh approached the slowly closing doors, he began to shoulder his way inside. Normally, the doors would have retracted, allowing him to enter completely, and closed again before safely lifting off without incident. But on August 16, 2003, that isn’t what happened.
Instead, Steinau watched in disbelief the elevator began to rise… with her colleague still pinned between its doors. Unable to wrench himself free, Nikaidoh was decapitated just above the lower jaw as the elevator made its methodical, horrifying ascent. His corpse, along with several belongings, fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft. His severed head fell into the elevator with Steinau.
“He tried to pull back and he couldn’t,” Steinau has stated. “The doors wouldn’t open.”
Steinau was stuck in Elevator 14 with her colleague’s unblinking remains for over an hour.
“I just keep seeing the look in his eyes,” she remembers.
Negligent Elevator Maintenance Causes Wrongful Death
Normally, elevators pose no physical threat to their riders. Not unlike the complex jumbo jets flown by today’s major airlines, elevators have a comprehensive system of security back-ups to thank for their excellent statistical record.
Needless to say, the incident with Hitoshi Nikaidoh should never have happened. Sensors in elevator doors are designed to make sure the panels will not try to clamp shut if a body or object is blocking their path from closing completely. On top of that, additional safety backups are utilized to ensure that elevators will not climb or descend if they are still partially open. There are safeguards in place to prevent exactly the sort of occurrence which claimed Nikaidoh’s life.
What went wrong in Elevator 14?
The answer seems horrifyingly trivial: a single extra wire.
Had Elevator 14 been configured properly, one wire — not two — would have been connected to one of the many controller studs in the elevator control system. The empty space would have allowed the sensors to function properly, and Nikaidoh would have been released with no harm inflicted. But the empty space was filled by a wire that shouldn’t have been there.
The misplaced wire may have been the predominant cause of Nikaidoh’s death, but alarmingly, it turned out to be only one of numerous examples of negligent maintenance work on Elevator 14. During the course of his investigation into the elevator, Chief Elevator Inspector Ron Steele of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation uncovered no fewer than 22 code violations. Resistors had been burned. Connections which should have been closed were left open. A generator guard was missing entirely. Elevator 14 was a solid month past its yearly inspection date.
Worst of all, Elevator 14 had been worked on by maintenance crews only days before the incident.
The maintenance to Elevator 14 was supplied by KONE Corporation. Today KONE continues to thrive, serving clients around the world from its headquarters in Georgia. Following the incident with Nikaidoh, St. Joseph dismissed KONE from supplying the hospital with maintenance work.
“KONE is deeply saddened by this incident,” company vice president Mike Lubben said in a statement. “We offer our deepest condolences to the family of Dr. Nikaidoh.”
Attorney Howard Nations represented the Nikaidoh family in a lawsuit filed against Otis Elevator Company and KONE after the young doctor’s death. “In the course of testing and retesting the elevator [the maintenance company] had changed wiring,” Nations said, “and when they rewired it back to its original position they forgot to put this wire back where it goes.”
Medical reports stated that the cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries to Nikaidoh’s head and body.
If you or a loved one has suffered as a result of negligent maintenance, you may have a case for a premises liability lawsuit. For a free legal consultation, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.