Elevator door fear claim has upsides, downsides

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Dear John,

The other day, I was in a building that had an elevator. When the door opened, there was nothing there! It was just an empty elevator shaft.

I could have fallen and been killed, or worse. Someone should pay for this calamity.

What can I do?

Sincerely,

Outraged Otis

Dear Otis,

I am shocked by your experience. I am often walking into places without looking where I go. Sometimes, I am pleasantly surprised by the results. If I experienced the situation you describe, I would be outraged, too.

But the law has not yet evolved to the point where prosecution and litigation can occur for what could occur, only for what has already happened. The legal system is not like the futuristic movie “Minority Report.” You cannot collect based on what you stated.

One of the fun things about the law is that there are often exceptions.

One way to revive your claim is to demonstrate that you were actually harmed by what happened.

Clearly, you were not injured by plummeting down an empty elevator shaft. Perhaps, your shock elevated your heart rate and triggered a fit of angina. It is possible that the near-death experience left you unable to sleep or eat anything with a hole. These harms may have value depending on how seriously you are impaired.

A rule of thumb in determining whether you have a cause of action for an injury is whether you seek treatment for it. Did you go to the emergency room, see a therapist or get some sort of reasonable help?

Another way of proving your harm is through a change in your behavior. If you stop eating donuts because they create flashbacks, you are harmed. More realistically, if you now only take the stairs or never go above the first floor, there is a claim.

Certainly, I am not advising you to conjure up harm if it did not truly exist. The law provides a test for preventing false claims. It asks whether the claim is reasonable given the totality of the circumstances.

In other words, would a person similar to you have a similar reaction to a similar event? If the answer is yes, then you may be able to proceed with your case.

If the answer is no, then you may be subject to sanctions for frivolous litigation.

Generally, claims based on harm without a physical manifestation do not prevail.

I hope my answer does not get you down.

John

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at askjohn@wwub.com.

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