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Shoddy regulation, loose laws allow dangerous elevators to continue operating in San Antonio

Photo: ALEJANDRA RAMíREZ, License: N/A

ALEJANDRA RAMíREZ

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Photos from the TDLR's investigation into the Crockett show a jumper cable on the service elevator brake that never should have been there.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Courtesy photos


Again in the 1990s an inspector noted a serious problem with a freight elevator at the Crockett, which had been rigged to run with the doors open. "This could have killed someone," an inspector wrote at the time. "A serious accident could happen at any time." When cited by the TDLR, the Crockett fought a $3,000 fine the department tried to impose. The TDLR eventually agreed to settle the complaint for a reduced penalty.

Houston attorney Hada filed a suit against Otis and 1859-Historic Hotels Ltd, which owns Crockett and nearby Menger Hotel, early this year on behalf of Rodriguez's four children. He also has advised Rodriguez's family against talking to the media and refused to make them available for an interview with the Current. The lawsuit claims Crockett's service elevator had "design, manufacturing and/or marketing defects at the time the elevator and/or its component parts left Otis Elevator's possession and/or control." The device was "unreasonably dangerous," Hada says in the suit.

A police report notes that Brendel, general manager at the Crockett, told authorities the hotel was "having problems with the elevators" but that they had been serviced and were in working order at the time of Rodriguez's death.

In a court filing, Hada filed what's called an "interrogatory" questioning whether Crockett had told Otis its elevator was "not reliable and needed to be repaired and/or replaced." Crockett's answer, from a court filing earlier this year: "Defendant admits that it placed several service calls for the elevator in question to Otis Elevator company at various times."

The case is set to go to trial in November.

In 2003, a Houston doctor was decapitated when elevator doors pinned his head and kept moving upward. Otis settled the case out of court. That wasn't even the only Texas decapitation that decade; years prior, in 1999, a 19-year-old Dallas construction worker stuck his head in a shaft to see where an elevator had landed and was decapitated when the elevator dropped on him.

To address some of the issues, the Texas Legislature created an elevator safety advisory board in the 1990s, but didn't grant the body the power to enforce inspections. In 2003, the state passed a bill requiring elevators to be annually inspected. But if buildings skip inspections, the elevators aren't sealed off or forced to stop running. In fact, there's no record from the department it's ever shut down an elevator for failing to meet safety requirements or inspections, except for during the course of an accident investigation.

The TDLR's records aren't exactly thorough, however. For instance, in 2011 housekeeper Yessica Beltran was inside an elevator at downtown's Grand Hyatt hotel when it suddenly dropped several floors, according to a lawsuit that was later filed. In suing for damages, Beltran's lawyers claimed she faced "severe bodily injury" and "disfigurement." Her lawyers declined to comment on the case this month after settling with Otis. This case, and at least three others that appear in lawsuits filed in Bexar County, did not show up on the state list of elevator accidents requested by the Current under a state open records request. Stanford said the TDLR maintains accident reports that meet the department's definition of "serious bodily injury" – "a major impairment to bodily function or serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part requiring medical attention," according to Texas' elevator safety code. "If you, in looking through lawsuits, saw cases that met those definitions and weren't reported, then that's a violation."

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