Premises liability: Woman plunges down elevator shaft

Perhaps the only thing that makes sense about Dawn Phillips' fall down an elevator shaft is the decision earlier this month that the building's owner isn't liable for her death.

The tragedy occurred on the evening of Nov. 24, 2005, at the Residences at Gallery Place Condominium in Washington, D.C.

Phillips had Thanksgiving dinner with her friends the Snows. The Snows lived on the ninth floor of the Residences. At the end of the evening, Mr. Snow extended the courtesy of escorting Phillips to her car.

Unfortunately, on the way down the elevator came to a stop between the seventh and the sixth floors.

Snow explained what happened next.

Snow is an FBI agent and former Marine. He was able to use his training as a first responder to open the elevator's doors and crawl out of the cab on his stomach, feet first, and lower himself to the landing on the sixth floor.

Snow then proceeded downstairs to get help. He managed to find a security guard who from the main lobby attempted to lower the elevator with an override key.

But meanwhile Phillips was getting impatient. We don't know what was in her mind. Perhaps she suffered from claustrophobia. In any event, she desperately wanted out of the elevator.

Using her cellphone, Phillips called Snow and had him come back up to the sixth floor. Phillips told Snow she wanted to try getting out of the elevator.

According to Snow, he explained to Phillips that the better idea was to wait until the building's management could get help, but she was insistent.

He recounted that she told him, "I don't care. I want to come out the same way you did."

Snow helped her get the elevator doors open again and, after a failed attempt to come out in a sitting position facing forward, she tried to lie on her stomach and lower herself as the FBI agent had done.

Snow offered to guide her out the door, but the woman was apparently shy about her body and declined assistance.

Now, we can all appreciate the awkwardness of the situation, and how a woman self-conscious about her bodymight be reluctant to receive hands-on help. But given what happened next, her decision seems maddeningly inexcusable.

According to Snow's account, something went wrong as Phillips tried to maneuver herself out the elevator door. She fell through the gap between the bottom of the elevator cab and the sixth floor landing.

Needless to say, her plunge down the elevator shaft was fatal.

Phillips' death seems so unnecessary since there was no emergency requiring her immediate exit from the elevator cab.

But that fact didn't stop Phillips' parents from suing the building's owners and other entities for negligently failing to maintain and operate the elevator.

The D.C. Court of Appeals saw what should have been obvious to Phillips' parents from the start: the woman's contributory negligence precluded holding anyone else liable for her death.

The court said that "the evidence was wholly one-sided in demonstrating that Ms. Phillips 'appreciated' the risk of leaving, based on her awareness of the gap under the cab, and her insistence on getting out on her stomach after first trying to exit in a sitting position despite Mr. Snow's repeated assurances that help was on the way and that she should stay put. ...

"These observations all focus squarely on the unreasonableness of her decision to ignore the risk that leaving the elevator posed to her. In our judgment, no reasonable juror could fairly conclude that Ms. Phillips acted reasonably when she tried to lower herself from the elevator." (Phillips v. Fujitec America)

Published: Fri, Sep 10, 2010