WASHINGTON — A federal safety agency took the rare step Wednesday of voting to sue a major elevator company to force it to fix residential elevators blamed for crushing young children.
The danger of such accidents was highlighted in a 2019 investigation by The Washington Post.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and ThyssenKrupp Access, part of German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, had been battling for years over responsibility for the accidents and what should be done to avoid them. The CPSC backed off filing a similar recall lawsuit in 2019, despite pleas from victims’ parents, as elevator industry groups argued the problem was complicated.
More pressure to act came after a 4-year-old boy was trapped under a ThyssenKrupp Access residential elevator on Thanksgiving Day 2019. He escaped serious injury. But the incident highlighted the continuing threat.
On Wednesday, after weeks of new negotiations with the company, the CPSC voted 3-1 to file a lawsuit to require ThyssenKrupp Access to inspect elevators installed in customers’ homes and offer free repairs. In most cases, the agency is required by law to have companies voluntarily agree to a recall or a corrective action like this. It is unusual for the CPSC to go to court to compel action for what the agency considers a substantial product hazard.
The danger comes from a narrow gap between the two doors on some residential elevators. Small children can slip between the doors and fall under a moving elevator car. The elevator industry had been aware of the hazard for more than 70 years, as The Post reported in its investigation into the lack of action by regulators.
At least eight children have been killed and two more seriously hurt in elevator entrapments since 1981, according to a CPSC database and Post research. But the true toll is hard to know. Some elevator safety experts suspect it is significantly higher.
Yet the fix is simple: Install small barriers to block the gap. But for years ThyssenKrupp Access objected.
A company spokesman said in a statement to The Post that it exited the home elevator business in 2012 and since then has worked to alert homeowners to “this installation hazard.” The statement also noted the company is “disappointed” that the CPSC filed its lawsuit.
The decision to sue was spurred by regulators learning the company had been inspecting and fixing some home elevators on its own, without alerting the regulators, according to a senior agency official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
These are known as “silent recalls” and are frowned upon because they fail to alert the public to the danger, and evade oversight by regulators.
ThyssenKrupp Access made at least 16,800 residential elevators under different brand names through 2012, according to the CPSC.
The CPSC’s complaint seeks to require the company to notify the public about the danger and offer free inspections and free solutions to the problem.
“This is wonderful news,” said Brandi Helvey, who son, Jacob, was 3 when he suffered a serious brain injury after being trapped under a residential elevator in 2010. “We are so grateful that the CPSC continued to press the elevator industry and now is going after (ThyssenKrupp Access).”