The estate of a Luzerne County correctional officer who fell down a county prison elevator shaft to his death in July has filed litigation against several companies linked to the elevator installation, maintenance or inspection.
The suit asserts the “individual and collective failures” of the defendants to ensure the elevator was in proper and safe working order was the “direct, legal and/or factual cause” of the incident that caused 25-year-old correctional officer Kristopher Moules’ death.
The fifth-floor elevator door at the prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre immediately gave way at the base July 18 when inmate Timothy Darnell Gilliam Jr., 27, fell backward and hit the elevator door, pulling Moules with him, a criminal investigation had concluded.
The men fell 59 feet and 1 inch from the fifth floor to the top of the elevator car, which was stationary on the ground floor, and both died of multiple traumatic injuries, officials have said.
Kenneth Moules, of Larksville, who is Kristopher’s father and administrator of the estate, filed the litigation against four entities:
• Schindler Elevator Corp., an international corporation based in Morristown, New Jersey, which was under county contract on July 18 and for many years prior to provide maintenance services for county elevators, including the prison elevator.
• Inventio AG, a subsidiary of Schindler also in Morristown, that creates, produces and supplies elevator parts for Schindler.
• Otis Elevator Co., in Allentown, which designed, manufactured, supplied and installed the elevator around 1986. The company also handled replacement of the elevator around 1994 and an elevator modernization, refurbishing and/or overhauling around 2001.
• Nagle Elevator Inspection and Testing LLC in Lake Ariel, which was required at the time of the deaths and years prior to perform periodic prison elevator safety inspections mandated by state law.
According to the complaint, which was filed this week by attorneys from Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn, P.C., in Kingston:
There were other incidents at the prison before July in which “incidental contact” with prison elevator doors caused them to open contrary to the way they were designed. Each of the defendants were notified of these prior incidents, but none performed any investigation, repairs or corrections as a result.
The elevator door was equipped with a “wholly inadequate” and “undersized” guide/gibs — devices that help keep elevator doors in their tracks — which “played a direct role” in the failure of the door on July 18.
Under its contract, Schindler was required to keep the elevator in safe and reliable operating condition, use original equipment manufacturer’s parts and provide a written maintenance program tailored to specific building and environment needs.
This meant the company was supposed to inspect, lubricate, clean, adjust and, if warranted, repair or replace the following components that played a role in the death: elevator door operators, hangers, contacts, protective devices; car safety mechanisms; hoistway door interlocks and hangers; bottom door guides; and auxiliary closing devices.
Schindler “performed shoddy, heedless, maintenance and repairs, inadequate maintenance inspections, ignored known defects, and utilized improper replacement parts.”
For example, the complaint says Schindler did not use an appropriate Otis guide/gib and instead opted for a “cheap replacement part as a cost-saving measure.” It also accused Schindler of using “cheap drywall screws” to attach the guide/gib to the door instead of the appropriate metal fastening screws.
Schindler Elevator spokesperson Kim Hoskins released this statement Friday:
“Schindler regrets whenever anyone is injured in connection with equipment it maintains. It has fully cooperated with the local police and state inspection authorities in their respective investigations into this unfortunate incident since it occurred. Schindler will vigorously defend itself and strongly denies the claims made in this lawsuit.”
The plaintiff accuses Nagle of failing to discover “blatant deficiencies” with the elevator and performing “inadequate” inspections that were “contrary to industry custom, standard and practice.”
A representative of Nagle Elevator could not immediately be reached for comment.
Otis Elevator did not ensure all appropriate and necessary safety equipment was installed in the elevator when it handled the elevator modernization around 2001, the complaint said.
Otis communications manager Jodi Golia Hynes said it would not be appropriate for the company to comment on a pending legal matter.
The complaint said all defendants knew or should have known the prison was a “potentially dangerous environment” and that the elevator would be subject to “rough-housing, scuffling, fighting, and/or other assaultive behaviors.”
Specific details about the incident were included in the complaint:
Moules was a “dedicated and well-respected” corrections officer and providing inmates in the fifth-floor prison block their evening dinner trays around 5:30 p.m. when Gilliam initiated a heated discussion with Moules. Moules advised Gilliam to exit the cell block to avoid a confrontation near other inmates.
When the verbal confrontation continued and escalated, another correctional officer in the control booth ordered Gilliam to be handcuffed. Gilliam began an “intentional, physical altercation” with Moules as he attempted to handcuff Gilliam.
As Moules struggled to subdue and gain control over Gilliam, the inmate continued to assault Moules, prompting the other officer to leave the control booth to assist. Others in the adjacent area, including inmates, witnessed the elevator door give way at its base along the lower track “in the fashion of a pet door” when Gilliam’s body came into contact with the door.
County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo informed council members of the litigation by email, noting the county is not named as a defendant in the court filing.
“This, however, does not mean that Luzerne County will not be named in the suit by the other parties,” she wrote, suggesting a closed-door executive session if council members wanted to further discuss the matter.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.