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The Anchorage Daily News reports that on February 8, 2009 a three year old girl lost 3 fingers in an escalator accident at an Anchorage J.C. Penny’s department store. According to news reports, the three year old was riding the escalator by herself while her mother paid for some recently purchased items at a nearby register. While riding, the new coat the toddler carried became caught in the machinery of the escalator. Attempting to retrieve her coat, the three year old girl reached down and pulled on the coat which led to her hand being sucked into the machinery. Witnesses to the event recall a “blood curdling scream” as the little one’s hand was devoured by the steel teeth of the escalator. Normally, escalators are equipped with sensors which detect the entrance of foreign objects into the machinery. But this particular escalator was “grandfathered in” and pre-dates sensor technology. As a result, the escalator proceeded to mangle the child’s hand as emergency and store personnel rushed to her rescue. Once they arrived, store personnel were able to locate and hit the emergency off-switch which was located beyond the child’s reach. Though this stopped the machine from further injuring her hand, it did not free her from its steel clutches. According to the news report, it took 2 claw hammers and all of the strength store personnel could muster over an agonizing matter of minutes to free the toddler from the machines deadly grasp.

As a result of her encounter with the antiquated escalator, the child is expected to lose three of her fingers. Doctors are hopeful that she will be able to keep her pinky finger. The event was horrifying for more than the girl and her mother. Witnesses describe it as “terrifying” and one witness who saw the machine “sucking her hand in” has complained of nightmares following the experience. Perhaps offered as comfort to the permanently disabled girl and her family, Ron Thompson of Anchorage Building Services proclaims that “things could have been way worse.” He is most likely referring to severe additional damage to the girl’s thumb, wrist and forearm which would have resulted had store employees not rushed to hit the emergency off-switch. Mr. Thompson also warns shoppers that “"[escalators] are not a playground. They are a very serious mechanical device that can cause some major damage, and major damage very fast, very quickly." It is not clear whether such a warning was on signs where shoppers could have received this sage advice.

The young girl’s family needs to know a few things:

(1) The Statute of Limitations for personal injury claims in Alaska is normally two years (AS 09.10.070). This means that you have two years to file your claim, settle it with the responsible party or your claim may go away as a result of your failure to pursue it. Sometimes, claims may survive until the victim’s 18th birthday. For the way in which the statute of limitations will apply here it is strongly recommended that you…

(2) Contact an attorney right away. While you are certainly free to contact Mr. Merdes at 866-735-1102 Ext. 455, this is not a solicitation or legal advice. This is offered as information only. If you would like a referral, feel free to contact Ward Merdes or call the Alaska Bar Assn. for a free lawyer referral: 800-770-9999. You can also try the National Board of Trial Advocacy (NBTA) at Just be sure to call an attorney who has handled cases like this before.

If comments on the various news websites are any indication, the Alaskan and national community are quite divided over this issue. Many commenters have reacted extremely aggressively and hatefully toward the mother of the injured toddler. Other folks have expressed shock and dismay at the dangerous and antiquated machinery utilized by the store. In light of the misinformation surrounding the situation there are a few basic facts everyone, especially the toddler and her mother, should be aware of:

1.) Everyone has a duty to act “reasonably under the circumstances.” What this means is a judgment call. But generally it means taking reasonable precautions to avoid risks which can be foreseen. In other words, if it is a possibility that someone might get injured in an escalator because it lacks emergency shut-off technology, then it might be reasonable to update the escalator’s technology. On the other hand, if it is foreseeable that a young child riding an escalator with a long coat might get it caught in the escalator and perhaps get injured, it may be unreasonable to let her ride it unsupervised. One of the questions which must be answered here is whether the store normally allowed toddlers to ride the escalator without supervision or with limited supervision. What is reasonable or unreasonable in a given situation depends on many different facts, most of which are not included in the news coverage of this accident. Whether the mother, the store, the escalator maintenance company, or anyone else is at fault is a question that can only be resolved after a complete and thorough investigation.

2.) Stores have insurance for situations such as this. Whether someone slips and falls on a wet floor, has a box fall on their head, or gets mangled by an escalator, large department stores maintain insurance policies to protect themselves from having to compensate injured individuals out of their bottom line. Contrary to tort reform myth, law suits are not the cause of “sky-rocketing” insurance premiums. On the contrary, the insurance industry follows the ebb and flow of the economy. Insurance is a business. They take your money and they expect to pay out on many, many claims. Where they make their money is in two ways: a.) denying claims and b.) investing. Recent studies have shown that the uptick in insurance premiums during recent years is more closely related to under-reserving by insurance companies during prime economic times and recent fluctuations in the various securities markets. In other words, insurance companies accept your premiums on the understanding that they will pay out when people are injured and you are at fault. Premiums rise, not because of “law suit abuse,” but rather because of fluctuations in the economy and poor economic practices on the part of insurance companies.

3.) J.C. Penny should absolutely install a newer, safer escalator. Dean Paul, the co-owner of Alaska Yellow Cab who heroically came to the toddler’s rescue, said it best: "you can’t grandfather safety." Of course toddlers will ride the escalator. Of course children of all ages will play on them. Of course people in Alaska will be wearing and carrying long coats and scarves which may get caught in the escalator. There is no excuse other than greed for failing to install escalators which do not pose a threat to the property and limbs of their patrons.

4.) It isn’t wrong to trust a department store. It isn’t wrong to trust that they will have appropriate safety devices in their escalators, elevators and electronic doors. Department stores receive a direct benefit from your presence. You come to shop and give them your money. They advertise, sending out fliers and coupons, inviting you to come to their store and spend your money. In exchange they promise to provide you with a safe and enjoyable shopping experience. J.C. Penny is not doing you, the consumer, any favor by letting you shop there. The least they can do is make it a safe and positive experience.

5.) Just because it does not happen often, does not mean it is the child’s or her mother’s fault. Escalator accidents are rare because they are typically safe machines. Recent advances have made them even safer. However, these accidents do occur and may have occurred at the same store. The bottom line is this: had proper sensors been installed on this machine, bringing it in line with current technology, the machine would have halted once her jacket became lodged inside of it and she would perhaps have survived uninjured.

For those pointing their finger at the toddler’s mother, I ask you this: What if it was your daughter? What expectation would you have of the store’s escalator safety mechanisms? Their signage?

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