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What is the likely outcome of the following case, and why? On March 21, 1980, Julius Ebanks set out from his home in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York, en route to his employment in the downtown district of Manhattan.  When Ebanks reached the Bowling Green subway station, he boarded an escalator owned and operated by the New York City Transit Authority.  While the escalator was ascending, Ebanks’ left foot became caught in a two-inch gap between the escalator step on which he was standing and the side wall of the escalator.  Ebanks was unable to free himself.  When he reached the top of the escalator he was thrown to the ground, fracturing his hip and suffering other serious injuries.  The two-inch gap exceeded the three-eighths-inch standard required by the New York City Commercial Building Code.  Ebanks sued the Transit Authority to recover damages for his injuries.

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To recover damages against the Transit Authority, the plaintiff alleged that his injuries were the result of the defendant's negligent operation and maintenance of the escalator. In the common law of torts, “res ipsa loquitur” is a doctrine that infers negligence from the very nature of an accident or injury in the absence of direct evidence on how any defendant behaved. Submission of a case on the theory of res ipsa loquitur is warranted only when the plaintiff can establish three elements:

  1. The event must not ordinarily occur in the absence of someone's negligence;
  2. It must be caused by something within the exclusive control of the defendant;
  3. It must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.

If all three elements can be established, the plaintiff will prevail. Although, the second requirement — exclusive control — could potentially be the proof that is not adequately refuted.

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This is a good example of "duty of care." In this instance, a relationship is easily established because the subway station is a public place operated by the New York Transit Authority. Ebanks has a clear reason to be on the property, and the escalator is clearly not a restricted area.

The escalator was not up to code, and the codes are established (in part) for safety. Had Ebanks just tripped, or had an unusual item of clothing gotten caught, that might be a different issue but in this case the escalator was out of spec and this deviation resulted in the injury.

It's pretty straight forward...the Transit Authority has a "duty to care" and be sure that its property is reasonably free of hazards (like a dangerous escalator.)

The interesting part is a little deeper. Who manufactured and installed the escalator? Was that company aware of the code, or had the code been changed since installation? Should the installer have known that the gap was too large and could result in injury? Was it an adjustment issue? Were the steps out of alignment? In that case, who was responsible for adjusting them? That doesn't change the fact that Ebanks should recover damages, but it does potentially draw more people into the fray.

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