Lawyers making clients worse off department: Nicholas White’s elevator ride

by Ted Frank on April 17, 2008

Nicholas White, trying to leave the McGraw-Hill Building in New York, was trapped in an elevator for 42 hours over a weekend. We’ll agree that under the principle of res ipsa loquitur, there’s liability, and even non-economic damages, to be had: there’s a duty not to let people get trapped in your elevators, to respond to an elevator alarm, and to notice the security cameras broadcasting video of the trapped individual. But, judging by the April 21 New Yorker coverage, it’s hard not to think White’s attorney’s litigation strategy hurt White far worse than his elevator experience:

He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to litigation. Instead, he spent eight weeks in Anguilla. Eventually, Business Week had to let him go. The lawsuit he filed, for twenty-five million dollars, against the building’s management and the elevator-maintenance company, took four years. They settled for an amount that White is not allowed to disclose, but he will not contest that it was a low number, hardly six figures. He never learned why the elevator stopped; there was talk of a power dip, but nothing definite. Meanwhile, White no longer had his job, which he’d held for fifteen years, and lost all contact with his former colleagues. He lost his apartment, spent all his money, and searched, mostly in vain, for paying work. He is currently unemployed.

Looking back on the experience now, with a peculiarly melancholic kind of bewilderment, he recognizes that he walked onto an elevator one night, with his life in one kind of shape, and emerged from it with his life in another. Still, he now sees that it wasn’t so much the elevator that changed him as his reaction to it. He has come to terms with the trauma of the experience but not with his decision to pursue a lawsuit instead of returning to work. If anything, it prolonged the entrapment. He won’t blame the elevator.

NB also that White never would’ve gotten in the elevator if not for anti-smoking laws requiring him to leave the building to have a cigarette, not that I’m suggesting anyone sue the city or the tobacco companies over that remote causation.

{ 15 comments }

1 Eric Turkewitz 04.17.08 at 11:41 am

Boy that sure is thin evidence to blame the lawyer. “He came to believe?” That’s it?

And the sentence prior, that you chopped off said:

Caught up in media attention (which he shunned but thrilled to), prodded by friends, and perhaps provoked by overly solicitous overtures from McGraw-Hill, White fell under the sway of renown and grievance, and then that of the legal establishment.

So maybe it came from his friends, maybe from something that someone at McGraw-Hill said, or maybe he came up with that on his own. Or yes, maybe it came from a dumb lawyer.

But one thing is for sure, there isn’t evidence in the story you linked to to create that headline.

2 Anonymous Attorney 04.17.08 at 1:42 pm

The phenomenon of “secondary gain”, or stretching it and faking it for attention, sympathy and lawsuits, is pretty well-known. I think there’s even a study out there showing that people with pending lawsuits heal more slowly than those without.

3 Daille Nation 04.17.08 at 2:59 pm

Careful with that tobacco company quip, they do have deep pockets. I wonder if he still smokes though.

Agree with Eric about your headline. It is misleading.

4 Bill Poser 04.17.08 at 3:14 pm

I’m having a hard time imagining what the alleged medical consequences of being trapped in the elevator were. Unless it was abnormally hot or cold, the only physical consequence of being trapped in an elevator for 42 hours should be dehydration, unpleasant at the time, but in most people without long-term consequences. I wonder what injuries he thought he was pretending to recover from in Anguila?

5 Add444 04.17.08 at 6:27 pm

Are you kidding me Bill Poser? Have you ever seen someone have an anxiety attack? Not sure you want to be stuck in an elevator whilst having one. In the days of anti-anxiety/depressant drugs it’s hard to believe someone would ask the question ‘I wonder what injuries he thought he was pretending to recover from’… ‘kin wanker.

Also, I would seriously questions the people at McGraw Hill’s judgement on this one, from a business standpoint. Here’s what i mean… Since this article came out, everyone, and i mean everyone, is talking about it. Hell, if they were smart, then they should have given the guy a ghost writer, and pay him back with a book deal or something. Instead they spend their wasted money in the courts. So American. No ideas.

6 Mark Biggar 04.17.08 at 6:28 pm

Dehydration is only one problem. Having to cope with the pile and puddle in the corner is another.

7 Bill Poser 04.17.08 at 11:04 pm

I’m not denying that being trapped in an elevator for an extended period of time is an unpleasant experience for which some compensation should be given, but as I said, for most people it should not result in long term injury. There are exceptions, e.g. a diabetic without insulin, who might well die, but nothing special like that is mentioned in the report. Some small percentage of people will have anxiety attacks. Will that leave them unable to work for eight weeks? Rarely, I would think.

8 T. Bruce McNeely 04.17.08 at 11:22 pm

For Bill:
What about PTSD? This guy was perfectly set up to develop this condition – trapped in a place where he was facing a horrible death if he was not found. This can leave someone unable to function for years if not treated. I’m not saying whether his lawsuit is justified or not, but I am saying that such a situation can have profound mental effects. PTSD is a hell of a lot more than “anxiety attacks”.

9 Tom T. 04.18.08 at 9:19 am

“White never would’ve gotten in the elevator if not for anti-smoking laws requiring him to leave the building to have a cigarette”

Never? Really? He never would have gone home that night? He would have just stayed at work until the next day?

10 Todd Rogers 04.18.08 at 10:37 am

Personal anecdote, for Bill. While en route to the Persian Gulf in 90-91, via a private freighter vessel, me and three other guys in my platoon were conducting a routine “gear-check” and were accidentally locked in a forward cargo-hold for eight-plus hours. No one on the ship knew where we were. The ship was crossing the Atlantic at the time. In the hold, it was pitch black, unfriendly seas outside, and no shortage of anxiety among the four of us. We managed to free ourselves – thankfully. But, I can assure you – even in light of being a well trained Marine, allegedly disciplined to withstand such things, it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced; personally, I found it scarier than those silly little SCUD missiles that some deceased dictator tossed our way, one of which landed less than a mile from my position. Unpleasant? – I don’t know the guy in the elevator. But I think you may want to consider a different adjective. It’s almost twenty years later and I still don’t like tight spaces.

11 AP 04.22.08 at 12:31 am

“White never would’ve gotten in the elevator if not for anti-smoking laws requiring him to leave the building to have a cigarette”

That’s just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.

12 Robert Bell 04.22.08 at 9:45 am

I disagree with the previous post that this is not evidence of “overlawyering”. When you sue for $25 million (how do you come up with that number?) and win a little over $100,000 (which the lawyer got most of, I am sure), you have not made a wise move. While this was undoubtedly a horrific experience (perhaps not as horrific as serving in Iraq or being in Darfur) there is such a thing as moving on.

Mr. White pulled the pin on a hand-grenade on his colleuges and employer and at the same time made himself unemployable. I call it “lawsuit syndrome” and I have seen it before.

The “victim” believes he’ll never have to work again, once he wins his millions in the lawsuit, so he seeks no employment while his suit is pending. When the suit does not pan out as planned, he suddenly finds himself broke and with no valid reason for several years of unemployment.

Prospective employers see this as a problem, and the prospective employee as a lawsuit hazard.

While life is often not “fair”, trying to collect 25 million for being stuck in an elevator is not “fair” either.

Being stuck in an elevator for 41 hours does not entitle you to 25 million dollars. Mr. White left his job simply because he never thought he’d have to work again. That turned out to be a wrong assumption.

He would have been better off with realistic expectations – that being stuck in an elevator is not that life-changing an experience, and taking a settlement quietly from his employer (and not paying a lawyer) would have had a better outcome.

THE PUNCHLINE in the New Yorker Article is that when they finally contacted him on the intercom, they were able to “free” him by telling him WHICH BUTTONS TO PRESS on the elevator panel.

The key to his freedom, was, apparently, in his hands the whole time.

This raises interesting questions. He states in the article that he left the “emergency bell” ringing for hours on end – until he had “auditory hallucinations”.

In most elevators I have been on, the “emergency bell” is often tied to the “emergency stop”. If you leave the “emergency stop” pulled for 41 hours, the elevator will not move, period.

Could it be he just had the emergency stop on the whole time? There has to be a reason why his legal case went South so quickly and why they ended up winning so little.

The “malfunction” was never explained, and that to me sounds very suspicious. It would explain why the lawsuit was settled for so little.

It reminds me of an episode of the Simpsons, where Homer has his arm caught in a soda machine. They are about to amputate Homer’s arm, when someone asks, “Homer, you haven’t been just hanging on to the can this whole time, have you?”

He replies, “Your point being….?”

13 Rae 06.17.08 at 12:29 pm

I’d like to make a few corrections to this article. Firstly, White was heading BACK to work after a smoke break. He was trapped in the elevator for 41 hours.

As a reply to Robert Bell’s comment, here is a video time lapsing White’s whole ordeal. http://www.snotr.com/video/1078 Look at the other elevator cameras as you watch, and see that maitenance was performed on cars 29, 31, and 32. My question is, why didn’t they perform maitenance on car 30? When an elevator doesn’t work for almost 2 days, I’m pretty sure that a responsible security/maitenance system should have noticed.

14 wc 08.04.08 at 4:29 pm

I believe this is a case of being underlawyered rather than overlawyered. Nicholas White needed better counsel.

Regarding the litigation, 25 million seems unjustifiably high, though they likely expecting to settle out of court, as they did. In that case, since they came away with so little, they either did not target the right organization, or rather the lawyer bungled every aspect. Companies have insurance for this purpose.

Regarding the path that Nicholas White’s life has taken since his ordeal, that’s something that counsel should have managed better. Indicating a desire to go back to work would have been much better than just appearing like you’ve won the lottery. Not that you could just show up the next day, you’d obviously take some medical leave, begin therapy, and discuss a transfer to a location where there is the possibility of taking the stairs, etc.

I worked with someone who had some overblown anxiety issue and just couldn’t come to work, it took a very long time to be let go. If this person had just gone to the Bahamas, however, there would have been grounds for a quick termination.

If Nicholas White has any money left, he’d do well to get a better lawyer, and sue the original lawyer for damages.

15 Jonathan 10.25.08 at 10:40 pm

What people are leaving out is not just Post-traumatic stress syndrome, but also that a person can go insane with 24 hours or more of isolation like this. So was the $25 million unjusitified? Absolutely, but he should get SOMETHING because he was obviously in a very difficult situation.

I’m pretty sure the company would have had an even bigger mess to deal with if Mr. White had committed suicide after being in a 7 x 7 box for 41 hours… They should be happy they got away with paying him whatever they did, because his family would have probably gotten the 25 mill if he decided to end his life…..

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