Brunswick County families sue, claiming home elevators failed, causing serious injuries

Waupaca knows about the problem, and lawyers believe they are giving consumers a false sense of security that the elevators are still safe to use
Updated: May. 3, 2021 at 2:28 PM EDT
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HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - It was a terrifying experience. Two different families who survived residential elevator failures want to warn others they could be in harm’s way, too.

Within the last year, there have been two separate elevator crashes in Holden Beach. One incident happened to a family vacationing at a rental home. Tressa Fortenberry was taking the elevator from the second floor to the third floor. She broke her foot when she says the elevator crashed to the ground on June 14, 2020.

The other incident was more serious, and happened to a local family in their own home. On December 2, 2020, Dickie and Delores Brackin say they fell three stories when the elevator they’d been using without incident for 20 years, suddenly crashed to the ground. The Brackins, who are both 70, suffered broken legs and remain unable to walk without assistance.

“I looked down. I saw the bone sticking out of my leg,” Delores recalls of the morning of the accident. “I said, ‘Dickie what has happened?’ While I was laying there, and asking God to please put his hand on both me and him... it was just a pain like unbelievable.”

The couple, married for over 50 years, were air lifted to the hospital. Delores was hospitalized for two weeks. Dickie, who also suffered broken legs and crushed ankles, was released after four days in the hospital.

“I trusted the people to put the elevator in. I trusted the people that came and inspected it every year,” Delores said.

The same type of Waupaca residential elevator, which is subject to a recall, was involved in the Brackin and Fortenberry cases. An attorney, representing both families in a lawsuit against the manufacturer, estimates there are around 100 of these same recalled elevators in homes all along the Carolina coast.

While researching the problem with these elevators, Attorney Joel Rhine found documented cases of the elevators crashing dating back to 1998. According to his lawsuit, 8,000 of these Custom Lift 450 and 500 elevators, built between 1976 and 2008, are at risk of failing.

“I was shocked about how many there are, especially on our beaches. These vacation rentals are obviously two or three stories high, you need an elevator to get your luggage and everything up. Apparently Waupaca was one of the largest suppliers of those elevators. They had several certified installers [in Southeastern North Carolina],” Rhine told WECT.

Rhine says Waupaca knows about the problem, and he believes they are giving consumers a false sense of security that the elevators are still safe to use. Executives with the elevator company disagree.

“Waupaca Elevator Company cannot comment publicly on the specifics of any ongoing litigation, including the cases currently pending in southeast North Carolina,” Waupaca Elevator Company Operations Manager Gary Ziebell told WECT. “Waupaca issued a recall of elevators in October 2018 in coordination with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Owners of those Waupaca elevators affected by the recall have been directed to not use the elevators until an overspeed safety device has been installed by an approved dealer. Some elevators affected by the recall require additional work, including a replacement of the elevator’s gearbox. After the necessary repairs have been made to the elevators, they are perfectly safe to use. If any Waupaca elevator owners have questions associated with this recall, they are welcome to visit Waupaca’s website.”

Rhine’s clients relied on that information, and still got injured on Waupaca elevators. The Brackins had the elevator inspected as Waupaca recommended. According to the lawsuit, after an oil sample was taken from the Brackin’s elevator and sent to Waupaca for analysis, “the Plaintiffs were informed that their elevator had no metal shavings and thus did not need a replacement at this point.” With that in mind, the Brackins continued to use their elevator.

According to Rhine’s other lawsuit against Waupaca, Plaintiff Tressa Fortenberry was using an elevator that had a high-speed braking device installed on it about seven months earlier, after a technician from Port City Elevator found signs that indicated the elevator was in danger of failing. The homeowner was informed the elevator was safe to use, but it still failed while Fortenberry was renting the home.

“Our case is that [Waupaca is] telling people the wrong thing. They are not telling people about the danger. They’re telling people that this is normal wear and tear and that you can use these elevators until you have these shavings, [and that] these overspeed braking device will stop the elevator. None of that’s true, and that’s how we are bringing these lawsuits,” Rhine explained.

When asked about the elevator that failed after the high-speed braking device was installed, Waupaca executives indicated it must have been an installation error.

“Waupaca Elevator Company has tested the overspeed safety device extensively. Based on the results of the testing, we are confident that the overspeed safety device operates as intended, provided it is installed correctly,” Ziebell said.

Rhine says this is a public safety issue, and warns the public not to use these recalled elevators for anything more than transporting groceries and luggage.

“One that crashed had the overspeed breaking device with it. It doesn’t work. Their remedy doesn’t work. These things are dangerous,” Rhine said.

In addition to concerns about a false sense of security, the manufacturer is giving to homeowners with these recalled elevators, Rhine also noted there’s a lengthy backorder for the parts to repair the elevator if a problem is detected.

“Those [replacement gear boxes] aren’t going to be available for years, there’s such a backlog. and they are telling people that you can use it in the meantime. This is dangerous,” Rhine said.

Except for doctors’ appointments, the Brackins are still homebound five months after the accident. They hope their cautionary tale will serve as a warning to other homeowners and vacationers who might unknowingly trust that the residential elevator in their home is safe. They say they’re grateful to be alive, and grateful to the first responders, neighbors, local restaurants, family and friends who helped them or sent food and cards after their accident, but they say this was a life-changing event they may never fully recover from.

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