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Karlson v. 305 East 43 RD Street Corp.

decided: January 4, 1967.


Medina, Circuit Judge.

Author: Medina

MEDINA, Circuit Judge:

A New York corporation, owner of a building in New York City, appeals from a judgment entered upon a verdict in the amount of $150,000 after the trial before Judge McGohey of an action for damages for personal injuries suffered by Eskil L. Karlson, a Connecticut commuter, as the result of a fall into an elevator shaft. Jurisdiction is based on diversity and New York law governs throughout.

While the building owner claims that Karlson was guilty of contributory negligence and various miscellaneous errors are charged, the principal contention in our view of the case relates to the law applicable to the maintenance of a safety device to prevent access to the elevator shaft when the car is not at the landing. As we find no merit in any of these contentions we affirm.

Karlson was an employee of Haskins Laboratories which had its office in a five-story building in Manhattan owned by appellant, 305 East 43rd Street Corporation. The building contained a single, manually operated elevator that had been in use since its installation in 1920 without significant alteration. During business hours appellant supplied an operator but at other times, with some exceptions, occupants of the building were forced to walk up the stairs.

Because employees of Haskins frequently were in the building on weekends, some few of them sought and obtained permission to operate the elevator themselves. Although Karlson was not included in this group, he learned how to use the elevator from appellant's operator, as apparently had most other Haskins employees, and it was his habit to use the elevator when he was in the building on Sundays.

On previous Sundays Karlson came to the street door, opened it with a key he had been given for the purpose, closed the street door and found himself in a vestibule facing and about 10 or 12 feet from the closed solid doors to the elevator shaft. There was a large three-panelled glass transom above the street door and this provided sufficient light for him to see what he was about but he did not think he "could read a paper in there." There was an electric light fixture overhead but he had never seen it lighted on other Sundays and he had not been shown where the switch was to turn on this light. He then walked over to the stairway and picked up the key to the elevator that was customarily kept under the bottom step, in accordance with instructions previously given to him by employees of the building, and he used this key to open the closed solid doors leading to the elevator. He pulled out the door to his right, then leaned over and reached inside to turn on the light in the elevator. The light switch was in the car at about knee level. He then put the key back under the stairs, entered the elevator car that was always there at the landing, turned on the power, closed the folding gate and ran the car up to the fifth floor where his research laboratory was.

On October 8, 1961 he arrived at the building at about one o'clock in the afternoon and did just what he had done on the earlier Sundays. But on this occasion Robert Epstein, also a Haskins employee, had already run the elevator car to one of the upper floors and he had put the key back under the stairs. Expecting to find the elevator car at the landing, Karlson got the key from under the stairs, opened the door leading to the elevator, reached forward to turn on the light and fell headlong into the shaft. If the door had been equipped with an interlocking device it could not have been opened unless the car was at the landing.


In his instructions to the jury Judge McGohey said:

The statute of the State of New York provides -- and this is a quotation: "In all factory buildings every elevator and elevator opening and the machinery connected therewith, and every hoistway, hatchway and well hole shall be so constructed, guarded, equipped, maintained and operated as to be safe for all persons; the Board shall adopt rules to carry into effect the provisions of this section."

Under the authority of this statute which I have just quoted the State Board of Standards and Appeals has adopted the following rule: "All manually operated hoistway doors shall be provided with an interlock or electrical contact or other approved devices performing similar functions."

The function of the interlock is defined in another provision as follows: "An interlock is a device which shall prevent the opening of a hoistway door or doors from the landing side unless the car is standing at that landing."

Now, if you find that the defendant violated any of the foregoing provisions such violations would constitute evidence of negligence and you may ...

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