Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dumbwaiter Disaster

(CN) - A woman had to have her arm amputated after an "unspeakable" nightmare in which a dumbwaiter pinned her arm "like a guillotine" for 21 hours, she claims in court.

Kathleen and Ralph Copeland had bought a Powerlift 100 dumbwaiter while remodeling their Copperopolis, Calif., home in late 2011. Since the couple were around 60 years old and planned to retire soon, they allegedly hoped the $3,500 dumbwaiter would help in transporting groceries to their second-floor kitchen.

After an installer for Powerlift Dumbwaiters Corp. set up the machinery, he told the couple "that the remaining work ... was so straightforward that any layperson could finish it," according to the complaint in Calaveras County Superior Court.

The Copelands say they looked to their general contractor, Ricardo Diaz dba Prestige Builders, to complete the installation.

What happened next reads like a horror story.

Kathleen says she had just returned home from buying groceries at around 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2012, and loaded her purchases into the dumbwaiter.

Since Ralph had just left town for a personal trip in Arizona, the house would be empty for several days.

Kathleen says she walked up to the second floor to meet the dumbwaiter car and retrieve the groceries when she noticed that a can of cat food had escaped one of the bags and become lodged between the dumbwaiter car and the second floor door frame of the shaft.

As Kathleen tried to free the can, the dumbwaiter "jolted back to life, and began its swift decent down the shaft towards the first floor," the complaint states.

"Like a guillotine, the metal upper frame of the dumbwaiter car caught Kathleen's right arm just below her shoulder, pulling it quickly downward, and collapsing it into the wooden frame that enclosed the access area, pinning her arm," it adds later. "The pace of the dumbwaiter traveling downward was faster than Kathleen was able to react to.

Kathleen says she spent the next 21 hours fighting "for her life."

"Kathleen tried desperately, with every last emotional and physical effort she could muster, to lift the dumbwaiter car off of her trapped arm, but the rigid mechanical pulley system kept the car in place without a budge," the complaint states. "She cried for help until her lungs stung with pain, but no one could hear her. She watched tearfully as her cellular phone rang only a few feet away. As her fight continued, Kathleen's knee punctured the dry wall under the dumbwaiter access door as she attempted to gain more leverage to free her arm from the machine. Although unsuccessful, the hole provided Kathleen with balance and an opportunity to take some weight off her feet. Kathleen was also able to reach through the hole and into the lowered dumbwaiter car to grab a cucumber from the bags of groceries. The cucumber was the only item Kathleen could reach, and the only food that she had. Luckily, the cucumber also provided Kathleen with some hydration. As the hours painfully passed by, plaintiff Kathleen Copeland became convinced she was going to die."

Some 14 hours later, when Kathleen did not appear at work that morning for a presentation she was meant to moderate, her company and husband began "frantically" trying to reach her, according to the complaint.

Emergency personnel finally reached the house at 2 p.m. and allegedly heard her screams for help. They found Kathleen collapsed against the wall, her arm trapped in the dumbwaiter had "turned black," according to the complaint.

Using their full strength, a saw and a halligan (a forcible entry toolbar), firefighters allegedly fought to pry Kathleen from the dumbwaiter's "unrelenting" grip.

Once free, Kathleen was air-lifted to University of California, Davis, Medical Center, where her right arm was amputated just under her right shoulder, according to the complaint.

The Copelands say that they purchased the dumbwaiter with the understanding that it came with magnetic door safety switches and an "interlock" safety feature that would prevent young children from accessing and playing in it.

"In reviewing the scant product materials provided by PDC, plaintiffs were left with the understanding that, similar to a common electric garage door or elevator, the dumbwaiter system would not freeze up and/or become immovable in the event an object were to obstruct the path of the elevator car," the complaint states. "Further, plaintiffs believed that the dumbwaiter car could be lifted manually in the event of an obstruction."

Billing itself as "The Smart Way to Buy a Dumbwaiter," PDC has been in business since 1972, according to its website. A representative for the company declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Phone numbers listed for the contractor are not in service.

The Copelands want punitive damages from that Georgetown, Calif.-based company as well as their contractor in San Jose, alleging strict product liability, failure to warn, professional negligence and loss of consortium.

They are represented by Christopher Lavorato of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.