The family of a Renton man killed in 2013 when his clothes became ensnared in an escalator at King County Metro’s University Station recently resolved a lawsuit against the county and the company responsible for maintaining the escalator.
As Maurecio Bell neared the bottom of an escalator at King County Metro’s University Station in April 2013, the 42-year-old Renton man fell and the drawstring on his hooded sweatshirt got caught in the moving steps, causing the rest of his clothing to become ensnared.
Firefighters ultimately cut him free of his clothes but it was too late. Bell died at the scene, strangled by the drawstring around his neck.
On Wednesday, a King County Superior Court judge approved a resolution agreement in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed on behalf of Bell’s wife and children.
King County will pay $1 million while the amount to be paid by KONE Elevators & Escalators, the Illinois-based company responsible for the escalator’s maintenance, will remain confidential, according to court records and one of the attorneys who represented Bell’s family.
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Geoffrey Grindeland, a Seattle attorney who represented King County, referred questions to King County Metro. John Bergmann, one of the attorneys who represented KONE, declined to comment because the case was settled during confidential mediation in June.
Because the case includes payments to minor children — Bell’s three biological children and his stepson — the agreement had to be reviewed by a judge before it became final Wednesday, explained Seattle attorney Tomas Gahan, who represented Bell’s family with co-counsel Felix Luna.
“This thing just kept chewing on him till he strangled to death,” Gahan said of the escalator that killed Bell. “It didn’t happen instantly.”
It took between seven and 15 minutes for Bell to die early on April 7, 2013, because safety devices, meant to detect items trapped between steps and stop the escalator’s movement, never triggered, Gahan said. Several of the escalator’s comb teeth were broken and its steps were misaligned, court records show.
A passer-by hit the escalator’s manual stop button but couldn’t pull Bell free in an incident captured by video-surveillance cameras.
“By the time help comes to him, he’s pinned so tightly against the escalator steps that he can’t be moved a millimeter,” he said.
Reaching a resolution ended a hard-fought legal battle: The county and company had argued that because Bell was drunk at the time, he was at least partially responsible for his own injuries, the court records say.
At the time of his death, Bell’s blood alcohol content was 0.17, more than twice the legal limit for drivers, and he had a bottle of brandy and several baggies of presumed drugs in his pocket, court records say.
The defense also contended that the escalator didn’t have to have an additional safety feature known as a “step-comb impact device” because it wasn’t required by code in 1988 when the escalator was manufactured. (The company that manufactured the escalator was later bought by KONE).
The device is designed to stop an escalator if clothing or body parts get stuck.
Gahan and Luna countered the intoxication defense by showing that the county displayed advertising that encouraged people to use public transit instead of drinking and driving. Bell was on his way to catch a bus home when he was killed.
They also noted that a consultant hired in 2011 by the county and Port of Seattle had recommended all escalators be “completely modernized” and fitted with step-comb impact devices, court records say.
While the Port added the devices to escalators at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, King County decided against the retrofit for budgetary reasons, the records say.
Ten months before Bell’s death, a tourist from Florida suffered serious injuries to his foot after his shoe got stuck in the same escalator — and King County ignored his complaint requesting that the county pay his medical bills, according to Gahan and court documents. Then in March 2014, nearly a year after Bell was killed, a young boy got his shoe stuck in the same escalator, but his mother was able to yank him free before he was hurt, Gahan said.
In neither case did the escalator stop when a shoe got stuck, he said.
“This escalator was really old, poorly maintained and kind of a death trap,” Gahan said. “As far as I know, nothing’s changed.”
Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, said Metro decided to retrofit instead of replace 39 of its 40 escalators in the downtown bus tunnel in 2012 at a cost of $6.3 million. But the retrofits did not include installation of the step comb impact device because they’re aren’t required by code, he said. Maintained by KONE, Switzer said the escalators “are deemed safe” and are regularly inspected.
Bell was the father of now 6-year-old twins with his wife and stepfather to his wife’s teenage son from a prior relationship; he also fathered a now 4-year-old girl with another woman, the records say.