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Urena v. Schindler Elevator Corp.

United States District Court, D. Alaska

March 3, 2019

ROBERTA URENA, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHINDLER ELEVATOR CORPORATION and COLUMBIA SUSSEX, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION [RE: MOTION AT DOCKET 103, 110, 113]

          JOHN W. SEDWICK SENIOR JUDGE.

         I. MOTIONS PRESENTED

         At docket 103, Plaintiff Roberta Urena (“Plaintiff”) requests that the court rule in advance of trial that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies to this case, which involves injuries allegedly caused by an elevator malfunction, thereby lessening Plaintiff's burden on the showing of negligence. Schindler Elevator and Columbia Sussex (“Defendants”) oppose the motion at docket 132.

         At docket 113, Plaintiff asks the court to rule that a heightened “common carrier” standard of care applies to this case. Defendants oppose the motion at docket 130.

         At docket 110, Plaintiff requests that the court, if not inclined to rule in her favor on the appropriate standard of care, certify these issues as ones appropriate for the Alaska Supreme Court to answer. Defendants initially opposed Plaintiff's request at docket 136.

         II. BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit arises out of an elevator malfunction that occurred on September 21, 2013, at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Anchorage. Plaintiff was the sole passenger in the Hilton elevator when it made an unexpected safety stop. Plaintiff alleges that the elevator plunged in a free fall for eight floors before coming to a stop. Plaintiff was trapped in the elevator between the fifth and sixth floors and had to be extracted by the Anchorage Fire Department. She alleges that she suffered injuries because of the fall. Defendants acknowledge that there was an unexpected emergency stop but dispute that the elevator did a free fall and dispute the distance the elevator dropped during the stop.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Res Ipsa Loquitur

         “The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits, but does not compel, an inference of negligence from the circumstances of an injury.”[1] “The doctrine, where applicable, is a bridge, dispensing with the requirement that a plaintiff specifically prove breach of duty, once that duty and proximate cause have been established.”[2] The doctrine should be applied when:

(1) the accident is one which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence;
(2) the agency or instrumentality is within the exclusive control of the defendant;
(3) the injurious condition or occurrence was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.[3]

         This three-part inquiry helps determine whether the plaintiff's evidence is sufficient to show that it is more probable than not that the injury resulted from the defendant's breach of duty. That is, “where several causes of an accident are equally probable, a plaintiff may still avail himself of res ipsa loquitur by presenting evidence which tends to eliminate all but those causes resulting from defendant's negligence.”[4] If the plaintiff succeeds in doing so, an inference of negligence on the part of the defendant arises and the defendant must present rebuttal evidence.[5] “[T]he doctrine makes recovery possible where circumstances render proof of ...


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