Worker death in '02 spurs lawsuit

The Baltimore Sun

When JCPenney purchased the old Woodward & Lothrop store in Columbia, it wanted to add shelves and displays to showcase the new wares to shoppers as they glided between floors.

But the death of a store clerk who could not breathe after her head became wedged between the escalator's moving handrail and the new display, has her family convinced that the designers were negligent.

Andrea Albright, a 24-year-old single mother, was riding the up escalator at the Penney store in The Mall in Columbia on June 15, 2002.

She apparently leaned over the handrail - most likely to look for a pager she had dropped - and her neck became pinned near where the display case met the ceiling and where the clearance space next to the handrail narrowed.

Albright's parents, Morris and Joann Albright of Ellicott City, are suing the interior designer, builder and architect who renovated the area around the escalator in the mid-1990s for $5 million.

The accident "was something that was totally foreseeable," said Paul Bekman, the Albrights' attorney. The firms have denied liability.

JCPenney has since remodeled the area around the escalator.

Albright had been promoted from a saleswoman in the children's department to a member of the merchandise pricing team. On the day of the accident, Danita Jenkins, the team's leader and Albright's boss, was off.

Wilfred C. Kleiber Jr., the assistant store manager, said that Albright likely was carrying Jenkins' pager, which staff members relied on when they had a concern about the price of an item.

"Because [Albright] was the pricing associate on duty that day, and since Danita wasn't there, we need to get ahold of a pricing associate at any time, so somebody needs to have the pager with them," Kleiber said during a deposition in the case.

Attorneys have not found anyone who saw Albright's head get stuck. But Robert Henry Muller III, a retired battalion chief with the Prince George's County Fire Department, said he heard people yelling for help as he shopped on the second floor of the store.

He looked down to see Albright on the escalator, her body doubled over, her head pinched face down between the handrail and the wall, and her throat pressed against the handrail. Albright was conscious but unable to talk, and Muller said that he immediately noticed her skin turning blue.

"In my 24 years of experience, I've never seen anybody caught in an escalator that way," he said.

As about 100 customers gathered at the bottom of the escalator, Muller moved the lower half of Albright's body to straighten her spine. Then, Muller and three other customers lifted Albright's body to relieve the pressure on her throat.

By the time Howard County paramedic Lt. Robert Shawn Utz arrived, Albright was unconscious. Utz slid a backboard under her, and the four customers grabbed it.

Arriving firefighters soon took over while other rescue personnel cut into the wall, first with an ax and then with an electric saw. It took about 25 minutes to free Albright, according to Utz's testimony in a deposition.

At some point, Kleiber found the pager at the bottom of the escalator. Albright died 10 days later.

O'Neil & Manion Architects of Bethesda, RYA Design Consultancy Inc. of Dallas and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Baltimore renovated the area around the escalator in the mid-1990s and added a floor-to-ceiling merchandise display on the right side of the escalator to match the one on the left.

Howard County Circuit Court Judge Diane O. Leasure has rejected the three companies' requests to dismiss the case.

The companies contend that the part of the wall where Albright's head became pinched existed before their renovations. That section of the wall was not part of the merchandise display, and it was not altered, according to Sara P. O'Neil-Manion's deposition.

While looking at a 1996 architectural plan of the area around the escalator, she said "the clear indication here, this says existing wall and door ... and it's not indicating any change whatsoever."

Photos taken after the incident appear to show that Albright's head became wedged about halfway up the escalator and just beyond the first-floor ceiling.

That also happens to be very close to where the merchandise display ran into the ceiling, narrowing the gap between the handrail and the wall next to it from 6 1/2 inches to 5 1/2 inches.

The distance exceeded the 4-inch safety standard set by the American National Standards Institute to prevent people from getting their hands and arms caught. But according to an affidavit from Lawrence C. Dinoff, a building safety expert and architect, the reduction from a 6 1/2 -inch to a 5 1/2 -inch clearance posed a danger.

"Any reasonable review of existing conditions ... would have identified the need to align the new display construction with the existing ceiling and wall," Dinoff wrote, adding that the "nip point" where the gap narrowed should have been identified and corrected by the three companies during the course of the project.

The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation investigated Albright's death and recommended that JCPenney remodel the area around the escalator. In doing so, the company removed the merchandise displays on both sides of the unit, according to photos in the court file.

Investigators also tested the escalator after Albright's accident and found it working properly. While Albright's head was stuck, Kleiber tried to run the escalator in reverse, or down, to free her head. The steps moved but the handrail did not, according to Kleiber's testimony.

JCPenney is paying $213 a week in workers' compensation benefits to Albright's 7-year-old daughter, Arianna McKay, according to court filings. A spokesman for the retailer at its headquarters in Texas declined to comment.

Bekman declined requests for an interview with the Albrights. They have adopted Arianna, who was 2 when her mother died. A transcript of the workers' compensation hearing showed that at the time of her death, Andrea Albright and her daughter were living with Morris and Joann Albright in a Columbia apartment.

Arianna's father, Brian McKay, was not paying child support, despite having been ordered to do so by a Pennsylvania court, and Andrea Albright's take-home pay of about $200 a week did not stretch very far, according to the December 2002 hearing transcript.

Albright likely rode that escalator every day during the 2 1/2 years she worked for JCPenney - hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Since Albright's death, no one has died of injuries suffered during an escalator accident in Maryland, said Rudy Gondeck, chief of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's escalator and elevator division. But 33 people were injured from July 2004 to March 2007, he said.

At one time, children getting their shoes caught in the gap between the moving steps and the side of the unit was the No. 1 cause of injury.

But Gondeck said safety improvements have reduced such injuries and now Metro riders who fall while rushing down escalators to make trains in the Washington suburbs account for many of the state's injuries, Gondeck said.

A search of news reports found only one reference to an accident similar to Albright's. A 10-year-old boy riding up an escalator in a Singapore department store in 1997 wedged his head between the handrail and the wall. He had been resting his head on the rail to look at merchandise below.

The boy suffered minor bleeding to his cheek after shoppers tugged on the rubber cover of the handrail and freed the child.

Sam Shapiro, an attorney for RYA, asked Kleiber whether Albright ever rested her head on the handrail while riding an escalator.

"It was mentioned to me afterwards that, and I don't know by who or in what context ... that someone had seen her riding the escalator that way before in the past, but personally I hadn't seen it," Kleiber said.

Escalator accidents

Incidents reported to the state (none was fatal):

July 2004 to June 2005: 14

July 2005 to June 2006: 11

July 2006 to March 2007: 8

Total number of escalators in Maryland: 677

[Source: Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation]

Tips for Safely Riding Escalators

Hold children's hands.

Don't lean against the sides.

Don't rest purses or bags on the handrail.

Keep to the right and face forward.

Don't run.

Hold on to the handrail.

[Source: The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation]

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