The family of man who was killed when he fell down an elevator shaft in a building in Chicago brought a negligence and wrongful death action against the property owner, Auster Trust, and the building’s lessor, Austor Co., alleging that they negligently allowed an unguarded opening to exist, failed to provide elevators with an interlock to prevent the doors from opening if the elevator was not present, and failed to inspect the elevator doors to assure that the interlocks were operational.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, holding that a “sub-lease” specified sole responsibility for maintaining the elevator with third-party Yong Shing Wholesale Trading Co., which was bankrupt. To the relief of the plaintiffs and their Chicago premises liability lawyers, the appellate court reversed the trial court.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the sub-lease did not release the defendants’ responsibility for maintaining the elevator because the “primary lease” made the defendants responsible for maintaining the premises. Additionally, the plaintiffs argued that the defendants “voluntarily assumed” maintenance of the elevator, and were therefore liable for the decedent’s wrongful death.
The appellate court first noted the “general rule” that only people “currently in possession and control of property” are liable for its negligent maintenance. However, the court noted several exceptions to the general rule, including that a lessor may be liable where the lessor has ”expressly contracted” to keep the premises or parts of it in good repair, or where the lessor has voluntarily assumed the maintenance obligation by its conduct.
The appellate court held that the first exception, the “express agreement” found in the two leases, applied. The court held that the primary lease made Austor Trust solely responsible for maintaining the “structural elements” of the premises. The court held that the lease made Austor Co. responsible for keeping the non-structural elements in good repair.
Thus, the appellate court found the “key” issue to be whether the decedent’s fall was proximately caused by a failure to maintain a “structural element” or a ”non-structural element.” This is because the lease made Auster Trust solely responsible for maintaining the structural elements, whereas the sub-lease made Yong Shing responsible for maintaining the non-structural elements.
The appellate court held a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the proximate cause of the fall was “structural,” and therefore the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of the defendants.