In July 2009, Clarence Walker was trying to gain access to a broken elevator at 365 W. Oak St., Chicago, Ill., from the third floor of what was then Cabrini-Green in the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) building. The apartment building has since been torn down. At the time of the incident, the building was managed by It’s Time for a Change RMC. The company was a non-profit management firm run by building residents.
A witness testified that when Walker opened the third-floor elevator-shaft doors, he stepped forward and disappeared down the shaft. His body was found in the pit at the shaft’s bottom.
Celeste Walker, daughter of Clarence Walker, filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County. She alleged in the lawsuit that CHA and the RMC management company chose not to service and maintain the elevator and chose not to warn residents about the elevator’s hazardous condition.
At a bench trial in October 2013, witnesses testified that the elevator problems began in January 2009 when Hubert Wilson was hired to work on the elevator, replacing an established maintenance company’s contract. Wilson lived in a nearby building and knew Clarence Walker.
The elevator was known to get stuck on a floor or between floors. Building residents would ask Clarence Walker to retrieve the elevator by jumping on top of the elevator car and make repairs for them when Wilson, the actual repairman, couldn’t be reached.
A Chicago police detective testified about his interview with Wilson. Wilson told the police detective that Clarence Walker would access the controls on top of the elevator car to move the elevator between floors when it stalled and had a homemade “Z key” that could open elevator-shaft doors on every floor.
After the accident, one of Walker’s shoes and his Z key were found on top of the elevator cab. There was testimony that Wilson and Walker were friends and that they worked on the elevator together. An RMC employee testified that on the same day of the accident, Walker asked to be compensated for his work, but he was told to leave the elevator alone.
An inspector testified at trial that oil had overflowed from an unattended drip pan in the machine room above the elevator. The inspector also said the oil seeped out over several months covering the surface on the top of the elevator car, which is where Walker slipped and lost his balance, falling down the shaft.
The trial judge entered a judgment in favor of Walker’s family and next of kin in the amount of $1,500,000. The judge found the CHA and RMC owed a duty of care and failed to maintain the elevator.
The judge rejected the CHA’s argument that it was immune because Walker was trespassing and an unattended user of the space on top of the malfunctioning elevator.
In the judge’s written opinion, she stated that, “The evidence in the case at bar, shows that RMC permitted Walker to access the elevator shaft and /or the top of the elevator to open the doors that were jammed shut, move the elevator that was stuck between floors or stuck on one floor on numerous occasions with the use of his homemade Z-key. He was an intended user because of his relationship with Wilson who showed him how to do some things.” There was no written agreement between RMC and Wilson to service the elevator. Walker served as a de facto employee, the court noted.
On appeal by CHA and RMC, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge’s opinion finding that Walker was an unattended user and not a trespasser. The defendants could have taken extra measures to prevent Walker’s access after several notifications or could have properly maintained the elevator in the first place.
“Given the unique set of circumstances presented in this case, Walker’s continued access and the acquiescence of RMC to this access show that Walker was an intended and permitted user of the property.”
In conclusion, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the trial judge’s finding and the verdict of $1,500,000 stands.
Celeste Walker v. The Chicago Housing Authority, et al., 2015 IL App (1st) 133788.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful-death cases, catastrophic injury cases, automobile crash cases, elevator cases, worker injury cases and motorcycle accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Rolling Meadows, Rosemont, Riverview, Bridgeview, Maywood, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park, Lombard, Hinsdale, Inverness, Itasca, Flossmoor, Vernon Hills, Bolingbrook, Wheeling, Willowbrook, Long Grove, Chicago (Little Italy, Greek Town, Chinatown, Bronzeville, Kenwood, Rogers Park, Austin, Lawndale, Hyde Park), Naperville, Aurora, Waukegan, Elgin, Bolingbrook, Joliet and Matteson, Ill.
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