April 17, 2008

Everything you ever wanted to know about elevators.

Including the answer to "the age-old half-serious question of whether a passenger barrelling earthward in a runaway elevator should jump in the air just before impact":
[Y]ou can’t jump up fast enough to counteract the rate of descent. “And how are you supposed to know when to jump?” [said elevator expert Rick Pulling,]. As for an alternative strategy—lie flat on the floor?—he shrugged: “Dead’s dead.”
Via BLDGblog, which highlights the story of the man whose life was transformed by getting trapped in an elevator for 41 hours. I'm going to focus on a part of the story that reaches out to me. [SPOILER ALERT: It's more fun to read the whole article. This is the very end of it.]
At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay?...

Caught up in media attention (which he shunned but thrilled to), prodded by friends, and perhaps provoked by overly solicitous overtures from McGraw-Hill, White fell under the sway of renown and grievance, and then that of the legal establishment. 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.
Blame the law, or, more precisely, your own urge toward vengeance that drives you into the law's open arms. That is the suggestion conveyed by the author of this New Yorker article, Nick Paumgarten. But is it not possible to file a legitimate lawsuit, ask for appropriate damages, and still get on with your life?

The key sentence is "He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to litigation." He got a lawyer, and came to believe... Paumgarten won't say the lawyer talked White into behaving as if the 41 hours of elevator entrapment wrecked his life, but it seems that White made a destructive decision in the hope of financial gain. Or do you think he was just that angry, that vindictive, that long?

The annals of litigiousness need this morality tale.


Widmerpool said...

Easy to imagine Ann: No shortage of bad, case-hungry lawyers out there. He visited one, who suggested to him that his ridiculous pie-in-the-sky claims of lasting and permanent mental distress would be compromised if he returned to work. White bought it. Unfortunately, no one with any sanity intervened. Sounds like he's perfectly OK (if unemployed) now.

Great article by the way. I laughed when I read that on most new elevators, the door-close button is inoperative.

rhhardin said...

Lie on a pile of stuff, preferably other passengers.

MadisonMan said...

I know a man named Otis who invented a room
And his heart was filled with pride
I said to Mr. Otis "What does your room do?"
He said it goes from side to side.
So I said "Mr. Otis if you take my advice
You can be the richest man in town!
You've got to take that room that goes from side to side
And make it go up and down!"

And that was Good Advice, Good Advice...

There really should be an Allan Sherman week on American Idol.

Smilin' Jack said...

...from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay?...The annals of litigiousness need this morality tale.

And the moral is: he should have sued the tobacco companies...everyone knows by now that's where the real money is.

Bob said...

Have two convenient bungee cords with you, and at the first sign of trouble, clip yourself to the walls or ceiling of the elevator. You'd jerk your arms out of their sockets, but in the end...

...you'd still die, says the elevator guy.

Kirby Olson said...

I've heard that since Otis elevators got started, there have only been 13 fatal accidents in elevators. This has been since about 1888. I can't remember where I read this.

They have a fantastic contraption underneath the car -- a sort of radial spike -- don't know the terminology, that digs into the walls of the shaft.

Just think about it -- no one that any of us knows has ever even heard of anyone who has ever died in a plummeting elevator.

We see it in films, and we fantasize about it, but in no case has it ever actually happened.

AllenS said...

Anyone from Wisconsin should have this one figured out. Always wear your cheesehead hat when riding in an elevator. Place cheesehead hat between the floor and your noggin, and, wallah! Instead of suing someone, you sell your story to the National Enquirer, and make oodles of money.

rhhardin said...

There's tune-in-at-six news-you-can-use features on surviving or not surviving plane ditchings, according to which expert you want

The Bad News
The Good News

Laura Reynolds said...

I sometimes think that when you hire a lawyer, you need to hire another lawyer to watch the first one. Clearly this guy's elevator did not go all the way to the top. Throwing all thay away was a requirement, so he came to believe at a chance some years down the road to get some substantial amount of money. This guy worked for Business Week?

George M. Spencer said...

A classic New York article with a tremendous conclusion.

Wish you had not given it away for those who had not yet read the story....

SGT Ted said...

What a bozo. Being trapped in an elevator sucks, but it is hardly traumatic.

So, he has a pity party and tries to stretch it into free money. It'd be like someone who got lost in the woods sueing the forest service.

sean said...

I wonder why White settled for so little money. (It really does seem like he had an incompetent lawyer.) If I had been on the jury, the award wouldn't have been six figures, or even seven.


former law student said...

like someone who got lost in the woods sueing the forest service.

No, it would be like someone who was rearended by a cop car in front of the police department being trapped in his wrecked car for 41 hours. He was trapped through no fault of his own, and those who were responsible to observe what happened in the elevators did not help him. Except for having to argue intent, it's a perfect case of false imprisonment.

He should have gone back to work, though I never would get in an elevator after hours again. I did work with a woman who, on a lawyer's advice, did not come back to work after a car accident, to preserve the possibility of lost wage damages. I think this is very tacky at least.

sean said...

P.S. It isn't in the New Yorker article, but the building where Nicholas White was trapped, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, is also the building that was used in filming "The Devil Wears Prada." (It's also the building where I used to work.)

George M. Spencer said...

Of course, as we have all long suspected, the article reveals that the "Close Door" button on elevators made since the 1990s does not function.

It's just there to make people feel as though they're in control!

Sir Archy said...

Tam patiens Urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se?

To Professor Althouse.


That Avarice may engender Folly admits of no Doubt.  Yet may we ask whether the Indignation of the Victim seeking Redress would be as asperitive and grasping without Encouragement?

I do no wish to cast much Blame upon your Profession, but I cannot forbear to quote a few Lines from Samuel Johnson's well-known London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal:—

        Here Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,
        And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;
        Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,
        And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey;
        Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,
        And here a female Atheist talks you dead.

As the Ghost of someone who dwelt in London 250 Years and more ago, I may tell You that I have seen all this and more, for such is Life in a Metropolis. In my Day, if a House fell on your Head, you would sure to be Prey to an Attorney promising you a legal Reward, just as easily as you may Today in New-York.  I forbear to mention the quack Chiurgeons who would marr setting your Bones, but still demand their Fees, setting more Attorneys upon your Attorneys, until you are lock'd away in Prison, or Bedlam, or sunk into the Grave.

I would remind those who forgo just Compensation for their Knocks & Bruises, and who, goaded by a fell Attorney, seek a Pot of Gold: That Pots of Gold are commonly the Possession of Leprechauns; and that you may as well believe in these Little People as in your ever getting a Kettlefull of Guineas.  For however much as this imbroglio has miscarried, Mr. White has at least owned his own Foolishness; so that here again the Folly of mix't Greed & Anger is proclaim'd.

Knowing that, as a Professor of Laws, you are wont to think Higher Thoughts than some of your Fellows, and would never lower Yourself to grub after Coins fall'n from an imaginary Treasure,  I remain,


Your humble & obt. Servant,

Sir Archy

Larry Thompson said...

Rather than the elevator, I would say he entered the airplane for the trip to Anguilla with his life in one shape and exited the airplane with it in another shape. Who said you get to spend the winter on vacation because you got stuck in an elevator?

Chip Ahoy said...

Myth Busters did an episode on the jump-right-before-the-elevator-crashes myth. Conclusion: lay flat to evenly distribute the force of an abrupt stop, which never happens anyway because of the safety cogs that mechanically engage the tracks that run the length of the shaft in emergencies. Fewer broken bones, marginally less stress. But the so-called coin elevator at the Fed which was used to move heavy skids of coin and currency down to the vault was designed on a huge pneumatic pole with none of those sissy safety cogs on the sides of the shaft. That elevator, concerned me. It broke down often, and you could piss yourself whenever it suddenly stopped between floors. Luckily the building department was always quick on the case. This is the sort of physics I puzzled over as a youngster. I drove my parents nuts quizzing them over why a person would be hurt if they leapt straight out from a speeding car, or what would be the problem with jumping off the roof if you bent your knees skillfully enough. I had to learn about pain the hard way.

rhhardin said...

There was an elevator accident in Texas long ago, but a different kind of elevator. The airplane kind.

Mechanics had neglected to secure rivets on the underside of the elevators of a commuter plane and the skin broke loose, stalling the tail, which caused a nose-dive into the ground.

To airplane nuts, stalling the tail is one of those cool accidents. (``Hey yeah, that could happen, I guess.'')

Kathy said...

This elevator accident, which happened just a few years ago, still causes me to just let the doors close when I'm late getting to an elevator.

rhhardin said...

Then there's this elevator accident here which is apparently a wonderbra ad.

ballyfager said...

Sgt. Ted,

So you think being stuck in an elevator for 41 hrs. isn't traumatic? I don't think very many people would agree with you.

I was stuck in one for twenty minutes and I didn't like it at all.

Great article. Refreshing change from all the political claptrap sloshing around.

blogging cockroach said...

i hate to say it but sir archy is all wet
i dont mean he would slime us like in ghostbusters
but its just that there really are pots o gold sometimes
only the leprechauns are not little guys in green tights
put doctors in white lab coats
and their insurance companies

mom and dad here at the house
where i live in cambridge mass
know a very nice lady who is
the mom of a friend of tommys
--tommy is the boy whose computer i use--
anyway this lady is in her 40's but looks like 27
and radiates such healthy nice vibes
that even an insect such as myself can feel them
she is such a nice person its hard to believe
all the bad things that have happened to her
she was raped
she had lots of bones broken in a car wreck
that was not at all her fault
her grad school advisor committed suicide
and she found his body the next morning
her husband left her high and dry with 2 or 3 kids
and she had some gyno proceedure that went bad
so she was in pain for 3 years
all of the above are just for starters
you really dont want to know the rest
but the last one on the list
lead to the pot o gold
because the insurance co did not want
a tearful and poverty stricken single mom
on the stand talking about what a mess the doc made of her insides
so she wound up with more millions than i have legs
and so did her lawyer
but dad says that hey there is some
rough justice in the world
its just that there are no leprechauns
for 41 hours in an elevator