On December 14, 2011, Suzanne Hart was entering the elevator in the lobby of the building where she worked, at 285 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, when the elevator malfunctioned and suddenly shot upward while its doors were still open. The moving elevator struck her at about knee level causing her to fall into the elevator cab which continued to move upward, trapping Ms. Hart between the elevator door saddle and the hoist way wall. Ms. Hart was crushed and died of her injuries at the scene.
In the complaint in the ensuing lawsuit by decedent’s father against the building manager and the elevator service and maintenance company alleging they negligently serviced the elevator, there were two damages claims. The first was for decedent’s pre-death pain and suffering; the second was for economic damages sustained by decedent’s distributees. The defendants moved for, and were granted, partial summary judgment dismissing the wrongful death cause of action (in which Ms. Hart’s father claimed he sustained financial damages as a result of his daughter’s death).
On appeal in Hart v. Transel Elevator and Electric, Inc. (2d Dept. 2017), the lower court’s decision was reversed and the wrongful death economic damages claim was reinstated. Defendants’ motion for leave to reargue the reversal, or for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, was denied.
Under Estates Powers and Trusts Law Section 5-4.3 and as set forth in Pattern Jury Instruction 2:320, other than damages for a decedent’s pre-death conscious pain and suffering, the law limits damages relating to the death of an adult child to monetary injuries. A jury may not make an award for sorrow, mental anguish, injury to feelings, or loss of companionship. In deciding the amount of damages, jurors are instructed to consider the character, habits and ability of the decedent, the circumstances and conditions of her parents, and the services she would have performed and determine the monetary value to the parents. Pecuniary losses for the purposes of wrongful death damages are not limited to financial support and may include loss of services and loss of voluntary assistance.
As set forth in the court’s decision, Ms. Hart died without a spouse or children and her father was the sole distributee and the administrator of her estate (her mother died in 1992). Mr. Hart was 71 years old at the time his daughter died at the age of 41 years. She’d been an advertising executive at a big firm, involved in business development working four days a week at an annual salary of about $130,000.
Mr. Hart testified that Suzanne gave him enormous psychological support and that while she did not provide him any financial support (he did not need it), they had an understanding that she would make financial contributions to him in the future and would take care of him in his old age. Furthermore, plaintiff noted, Suzanne had already shown she would take care of and support her parents when needed – in 1992, when her mother was suffering from breast cancer (which eventually caused her death), Suzanne took a year off from college to take care of her mother.
- The judge heard oral argument on the motion but did not issue a decision or discuss the basis for his decision.
- Mr. Hart had been living in Florida at the time of his daughter’s death but visited with her several times a year at her home in Brooklyn and spoke with her weekly.
- An investigation by the city revealed that several maintenance company mechanics had worked on the elevators during the morning of the accident right up to a few minutes before it and had disabled a safety switch that would stop an elevator from moving when the doors remained open. Also, they failed to place caution tape inside the elevators and to call the city’s Department of Buildings before returning the elevators to service, as required by law.