Nicholas White, trying to leave the McGraw-Hill Building in New York, was trapped in an elevator for 42 hours over a weekend. We’ll agree that under the principle of res ipsa loquitur, there’s liability, and even non-economic damages, to be had: there’s a duty not to let people get trapped in your elevators, to respond to an elevator alarm, and to notice the security cameras broadcasting video of the trapped individual. But, judging by the April 21 New Yorker coverage, it’s hard not to think White’s attorney’s litigation strategy hurt White far worse than his elevator experience:
He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to litigation. Instead, he spent eight weeks in Anguilla. Eventually, Business Week had to let him go. The lawsuit he filed, for twenty-five million dollars, against the building’s management and the elevator-maintenance company, took four years. They settled for an amount that White is not allowed to disclose, but he will not contest that it was a low number, hardly six figures. He never learned why the elevator stopped; there was talk of a power dip, but nothing definite. Meanwhile, White no longer had his job, which he’d held for fifteen years, and lost all contact with his former colleagues. He lost his apartment, spent all his money, and searched, mostly in vain, for paying work. He is currently unemployed.
Looking back on the experience now, with a peculiarly melancholic kind of bewilderment, he recognizes that he walked onto an elevator one night, with his life in one kind of shape, and emerged from it with his life in another. Still, he now sees that it wasn’t so much the elevator that changed him as his reaction to it. He has come to terms with the trauma of the experience but not with his decision to pursue a lawsuit instead of returning to work. If anything, it prolonged the entrapment. He won’t blame the elevator.
NB also that White never would’ve gotten in the elevator if not for anti-smoking laws requiring him to leave the building to have a cigarette, not that I’m suggesting anyone sue the city or the tobacco companies over that remote causation.