Washington Case Law Update: Store Owner Cannot Escape from Vicarious Liability for Faulty Escalator
From the desk of Kyle D. Riley: Escalator owners and operators fall under the category of “common carriers,” which means that they owe their passengers the highest degree of care. But can the escalator owners and operators shield themselves from liability by showing that they delegated their duty to an independent contractor who serviced the escalator or by contending that they lacked notice of problems with the escalator? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: In this case arising out of injuries suffered by passengers of an escalator, the Washington Court of Appeals held that where an escalator malfunctions due to negligent maintenance and causes injuries, the owner and operator of the escalator have a nondelegable duty of care and cannot escape liability by delegating the maintenance and service of the escalator to an independent contractor. The court also held that the owners and operators could not escape liability by showing that they had no notice of defects or malfunctions with the escalator. This case serves as an important reminder of the heightened duty of care that common carriers owe to their passengers.
Knutson v. Macy’s W. Stores, Inc., No. 75565-0-I, Washington Court of Appeals Div. I (December 11, 2017)
Natasha Knutson, her husband, and daughter (“the Knutsons”) stepped onto an escalator outside of Macy’s department store as they were leaving a holiday performance at the Bellevue Square Mall. As they were riding up the escalator, one of the escalator steps jammed, however, because of poor maintenance, the fail-safe mechanisms did not shut off the escalator, so it continued to run. Witnesses to the accident described hearing a screeching noise, and then the steps began to pile up, causing the escalator to collapse on itself and injure several persons including the Knutsons. Following an investigation, the Department of Labor and Industries concluded that the cause of the collapse and injures was due to the neglectful maintenance of the escalator.
The Knutsons brought suit against various companies including Macy’s West Stores Inc. (“Macy’s”) and Kemper Development Company (“Kemper”). Macy’s and Kemper asked the court to grant them summary judgment and dismiss the Knutsons’ claims. The trial court dismissed the claims, and the Knutsons appealed.
On appeal, Macy’s and Kemper set forth two arguments. First, they argued that they cannot be held liable for negligent maintenance because they contracted with Schindler Elevator Corporation, an independent contractor and not an employee, for maintenance of the escalator. The Washington Court of Appeals disagreed. The court explained that common carriers owe the highest degree of care towards their passengers and that owners and operators of escalators are classified as common carriers. According to the court, the duty owed to passengers is nondelegable. As such, even if the owner and operator of an escalator uses due care when selecting a contractor for maintenance of the escalator, the duty of care cannot be delegated. The court noted that Macy’s and Kemper could choose to delegate the activity of servicing the escalator to an independent contractor, but they could not delegate their liability and would remain vicariously liable for the independent contractor’s conduct.
Macy’s and Kemper next argued that according to the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Dabroe v. Rhodes Co., 64 Wash.2d 431 (1964), their duty to the Knutsons was limited only to malfunctions or defects of which they had notice. The Washington Court of Appeals disagreed with the second argument as well.
In Dabroe, a child’s shoe became wedged in the side of the escalator, causing the escalator to stop suddenly, which in turn caused injuries to a woman riding the escalator. At the time the injury occurred, the owner and operator were already aware of four instances in which a child’s shoe was caught in the sides of the escalator. The plaintiff sued for negligence, and the theory was that defendants were negligent for failing to post warning signs or install a switch that would cause the escalator to slide to a stop instead of an immediate jerk. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the defense verdict because when the trial court provided jury instructions, they failed to provide the jury with plaintiff’s theory of negligence. The plaintiff’s theory of negligence, outlined in their jury instructions, was that the defendants had a duty to protect their passengers from the “danger of injury from malfunctions or defects of which they knew or should have anticipated from facts and circumstances known to them” (emphasis added).
Macy’s and Kemper argued that based on Dabroe, they should not be liable to the Knutsons as they had no notice or knowledge of defects in the escalator. The escalator had failed because of “latent” defects; loose internal screws and missing nuts that could only be discovered by an internal inspection. The court explained that in Dabroe there was no claim of negligent maintenance performed by an independent contractor. The jury instruction that was in dispute in Dabroe was not intended to be an all-purpose instruction appropriate in every escalator case. Instead, that instruction was necessary to support the plaintiff’s theory of “failure to warn passengers and properly equip the escalator.” In contrast, the theory put forth by the Knutsons is that Macy’s and Kemper breached their duty of care by failing to keep the escalator property maintained. The court explained that if the independent contractor’s neglectful maintenance caused the injuries, it would not matter that Macy’s and Kemper had no knowledge of loose screws and missing nuts. Macy’s and Kemper are vicariously liable for the independent contractor’s negligence to the same extent as if their employees were licensed mechanics tasked with maintaining the escalator. Accordingly, the Washington Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred in dismissing the Knutsons’ claims and reversed the trial court’s decision.
View full opinion at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/755650.pdf
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.
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