Giles v. City of New Haven

Decision Date08 February 1994
Docket NumberNo. 14709,14709
Citation228 Conn. 441,636 A.2d 1335
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesLouise GILES v. CITY OF NEW HAVEN et al.

Constance L. Epstein, with whom, on the brief, were Richard J. Kenny and Ruth A. Tower, Hartford, for appellant (defendant Otis Elevator Company).

Steven J. DeFrank, New Haven, with whom, on the brief, was Beatriz C. Conscullela, law intern, for appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and BORDEN, BERDON, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

The defendant Otis Elevator Company (defendant) appeals from the Appellate Court's determination that the trial court should not have granted the defendant's motion for a directed verdict in an action by the plaintiff, an elevator operator, to recover for the defendant's negligent failure to inspect, maintain and repair an elevator compensation chain that caused the plaintiff to sustain personal injuries. The Appellate Court concluded that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to warrant presentation of the question of negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to the jury. 1 We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

As a preliminary matter, we note that this appeal is before us pursuant to the granting of a directed verdict. " 'Directed verdicts are not favored and should be granted only when the jury could not reasonably and legally reach any other conclusion....' " Puro v. Henry, 188 Conn. 301, 303, 449 A.2d 176 (1982). Thus, in the context of a res ipsa loquitur case, "[i]f the defendant seeks a directed verdict in his [or her] favor, he [or she] must produce evidence which will destroy any reasonable inference of negligence, or so completely contradict it that reasonable persons could no longer accept it. The evidence necessary to do this will vary with the strength of the inference. It takes more of an explanation to justify a falling elephant than a falling brick, more to account for a hundred defective bottles than for one. If the defendant shows definitely that the occurrence was caused by some outside agency over which the defendant had no control, that it was of a kind which commonly occurs without negligence on the part of anyone, or that it could not have been avoided by the exercise of all reasonable care, the inference of negligence is no longer permissible, and the verdict is directed for the defendant." W. Prosser & W. Keeton, Torts (5th Ed.1984) § 40, p. 261.

The court may withdraw a case from the jury only when there is no question as to the existence of the facts necessary to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. "Phrased differently, the question of negligence is one of law for the court only when the facts are not in any event or in any view of the case susceptible to the inference of negligence sought to be deduced therefrom...." (Emphasis added.) 57B Am.Jur.2d 598, Negligence § 1931 (1989). Accordingly, in reviewing the trial court's decision to direct a verdict in favor of a defendant, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and then must determine whether the jury could reasonably and legally have reached a conclusion other than one in the moving party's favor. Petyan v. Ellis, 200 Conn. 243, 244, 510 A.2d 1337 (1986); Pinto v. Spigner, 163 Conn. 191, 193, 302 A.2d 266 (1972).

Applying these principles, the Appellate Court reviewed the record and concluded that the trial court could reasonably have considered the following facts in deciding whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied. "For fourteen years, the plaintiff was an elevator operator for one of the three elevators in the Powell Building in New Haven. On the date her injuries were sustained, the elevator she was operating was ascending from the first floor to the twelfth floor when its compensation chain became hooked on a rail bracket located on the wall of the elevator shaft. The plaintiff was not able to control the movement of the chain from the interior of the cab. Once hooked, the chain then tightened up and broke free from two bolts securing it to the underside of the cab. The cab began to shudder and shake, and the plaintiff struck her head and shoulder against the walls of the cab. The chain then fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft with a loud crash, which frightened the plaintiff. Upon hearing the crash, the plaintiff, fearing for her safety, reversed the direction of the elevator as it was approaching the twelfth floor. She directed the elevator to the nearest floor, the eleventh, where she jumped from the cab sustaining additional injuries. At the time the plaintiff received her injuries, the defendant had a longstanding exclusive contract with the building owner to maintain and inspect the elevator and its component parts. The elevator was installed by the defendant approximately sixty-one years before the accident. William Hendry, the defendant's district maintenance supervisor, testified that the accident was caused by the compensation chain's becoming hooked on a rail bracket in the elevator shaft due to excessive sway of the chain. Hendry further testified that the elevators were routinely inspected, but that neither inspection nor testing of the compensation chain was part of that routine inspection. The bolts that held the compensation chain to the underside of the elevator cab were never changed, and no one other than the defendant company touched the compensation chain or the bolts.

"On cross-examination, Hendry testified that the normal sway of a compensation chain is approximately one to two inches, and in order for the chain to get hooked on a rail bracket it must sway at least eighteen inches. He further testified that for the chain to sway eighteen inches there must be some misoperation of the elevator, such as rapid reversals of direction. He had never before seen a compensation chain pulled free of an elevator cab in his thirty-seven years of employment by the defendant. He further stated that on one occasion he had seen the plaintiff make rapid reversals of direction of the elevator.

"The plaintiff, however, testified that her ascension from the first to the twelfth floor was routine until she approached the twelfth floor, and that the cab began to shake and sway before she reversed its direction to the eleventh floor. She further testified that the crash of the compensation chain as it hit the bottom of the elevator shaft occurred before she reversed the direction of the cab." Giles v. New Haven, 30 Conn.App. 148, 152-53, 619 A.2d 476 (1993).

The plaintiff argued in the Appellate Court that she had offered sufficient evidence at trial from which the jury reasonably could have inferred that the defendant had been negligent in failing to inspect, maintain and repair the compensation chain. In so arguing, the plaintiff presented no direct evidence of the elevator malfunctioning, nor of any defect in the compensation chain. In support of her claim that the question of the defendant's negligence be submitted to the jury, she relied, however, on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur which, when properly invoked, allows the jury to infer negligence based on the circumstances of the incident even though no direct evidence of negligence has been introduced. Malvicini v. Stratfield Motor Hotel, Inc., 206 Conn. 439, 441-42, 538 A.2d 690 (1988). This "rule of common sense ... is but a specific application of the general principle that negligence can be proved by circumstantial evidence." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 442, 538 A.2d 690. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies when three conditions are satisfied: " '(1) [t]he situation, condition, or apparatus causing the injury must be such that in the ordinary course of events no injury would result unless from a careless construction, inspection or user[;] (2) [b]oth inspection and user must have been at the time of the injury in the control of the party charged with neglect[;] (3) [t]he injurious occurrence or condition must have happened irrespective of any voluntary action at the time by the party injured.' Schurgast v. Schumann, [156 Conn. 471, 479, 242 A.2d 695 (1968) ]; Briganti v. Connecticut Co., 119 Conn. 316, 320, 175 A. 679 (1934); Stebel v. Connecti Co., [90 Conn. 24, 26, 96 A. 171 (1915) ]; 4 F. Harper, F. James & O. Gray, [Torts (2d Ed.1986) §§ 19.5 through 19.12]. Whether the doctrine applies in a given case is a question of law for the court." Malvicini v. Stratfield Motor Hotel, Inc., supra, 206 Conn. at 443, 538 A.2d 690.

Before the Appellate Court the parties agreed that the first condition had been met: the accident would not have occurred unless someone had been negligent. Giles v. New Haven, supra, 30 Conn.App. at 154, 619 A.2d 476. The parties were, however, in disagreement about whether the plaintiff had made a case for the jury with respect to the second and third conditions of the doctrine, namely, control of the elevator by the defendant and the absence of responsibility for the accident on the part of the plaintiff. Malvicini v. Stratfield Motor Hotel, Inc., supra.

The defendant challenges the application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine to this case because in its view the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the defendant had exclusive control over the elevator. Specifically, the defendant argues that because the plaintiff operated the elevator and controlled its movement and its chain's sway, she could not benefit from the doctrine notwithstanding the defendant's own duty to maintain and inspect the elevator and to warn of any dangerous propensity. We disagree and take this opportunity to clarify some of the confusion in our earlier cases regarding the present scope of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

At the outset, we note that the plaintiff's evidence of the defendant's responsibility need not be irrefutable; rather, the plaintiff need only establish enough evidence that, if credited, presents the...

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3 books & journal articles
  • The Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act,
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