On the morning of April 11, seven-year-old Zhanaye Williams and her brother climbed aboard the automatic gate located at the entrance to their Tampa, Florida apartment complex, hoping to pass the time as they awaited their school bus. Suddenly, the gate began to topple, and unable to escape, Zhanaye suffered a crushing and fatal blow to her skull. According to tenants of the complex interviewed for the April 11 edition of the Tampa Bay Times, the enormously heavy gate had been broken for at least four years, and by the time of the fatal accident, it was attached to its frame by only a chain. Earlier this month, attorneys for Zhanaye’s parents filed suit against the apartment complex owner and its management company, seeking damages for Zhanaye’s death, along with damages for infliction of bodily injury and emotional distress on Zhanaye’s brother, who survived the accident and witnessed Zhanaye’s deeply disturbing ordeal.
In this instance, the grossly neglected condition of an automatic gate is the focus of legal action, but property owners have been held accountable for automatic gate-related injuries even in cases in which the care and maintenance of an automated gate have not been challenged. This is because automated entrance gates are potentially very dangerous simply by virtue of their design and function, and as a result, property owners who choose to install them expose anyone entering their property to very well established risks.
Preventable Injuries Continue Despite Safety Standards
The power of automatic gates to cause serious injury and death has been recognized for many years. In March, 2000, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in consultation with Underwriters Laboratories, developed specific standards aimed at reducing the risk of entrapment by automatic gates, basing this effort on documentation of approximately 25,000 gate-related injuries (9,000 of these involving children below the age of 15) during the ten-year period just prior to implementation of the new standards. The standards called for installation of both internal sensors, to reverse gate motion if the sensor directly encounters an object, and external sensors (such as electronic eyes), to reverse gate motion upon remote detection of an obstruction. The Commission also urged that gate controls, such as keypads, be positioned sufficiently far from gates so that users would not have to make contact with a gate while operating its controls.
The promulgation of these standards did not, unfortunately, put an end to maimings and deaths by automatic gates, in Florida or elsewhere. In September, 2000, a Miami woman coming to view a Coconut Grove condominium for possible purchase died from asphyxia after she operated the keypad of the automatic gate to the condo building by reaching through the gate’s bars, and got trapped in the moving gate before she had the chance to retract her arm. Zhanaye Williams’s fatal encounter with an inherently dangerous and poorly maintained automatic gate came over 12 years after gate safety standards were tightened; and less than a month after Zhanaye Williams was killed, a 12-year-old died when he got dragged into a vertical-rising, roll-up-style automatic gate at a Brooklyn, New York apartment complex.
Bases for Liability: Context Matters
In cases such as the terrible death of Zhanaye Williams, a premise owner’s liability for injuries or death involving an automatic gate may spring from one or both of two different legal principles: The duty of any commercial premise owner not to create unsafe conditions, and to correct unsafe conditions detectable by it through reasonable care; and the duty that a landlord owes to its tenants, under Florida law, to keep common areas of rental properties clean and safe. In cases such as the Coconut Grove condominium gate-related death, the obligations of the property owner and its representatives arise primarily from the first of these two different legal principles, i.e., the duty to keep any commercial premises hazard-free.
Understanding distinctions, such as these, among different legal principles that apply in differing contexts within the same broader area of law requires the help of attorneys who have worked extensively in the relevant field of practice. With over four decades of experience representing clients in premise liability cases, Gerson & Schwartz is an ideal resource should you or a loved one experience an injury on property owned by another individual or entity. For a free personal injury consultation, call (305) 371-6000, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org