Woman sues MARTA over failed escalator

MARTA's business is giving people a ride but not the type Patricia Weeks took on her way to cheer the Auburn Tigers against Clemson at the Chic-fil-A-Bowl two years ago.

The Red Bay, Ala., woman said she broke her leg when an escalator at the Five Points station suddenly ran in reverse on Dec. 31, 2007, and spilled passengers on the landing below, injuring more than a dozen people, most of them with minor injuries.

MARTA blamed the accident on a weak motor, which caused the escalator, overloaded with fans, to run backwards, and on a failed braking system that didn't stop it.

Weeks and her lawyer Michael Goldberg contend MARTA's contractors, Elevator Specialists Inc. and Schindler Elevator Corp., failed to do proper maintenance. Her suit against the transit agency will be heard starting Monday in Fulton Superior Court.

“The escalators are safe if the right preventive maintenance is done," Goldberg said. "The question is whether the maintenance company does it or not. In the past, they haven’t been doing it.”

Attempts to reach MARTA officials this week for comment on maintenance on its 149 escalators were unsuccessful. In March, MARTA said it spent approximately $1 million on an escalator safety review, including inspections and repairs, after dismissing Elevator Specialists as its escalator contractor. MARTA said the contractor had intentionally bypassed safety controls on an escalator in the Dunwoody rail station

On the night in contention, three MARTA escalators failed in two different stations. At the time, MARTA officials initially blamed the accident in which Weeks was injured on rowdy football fans who they claimed were jumping on the packed escalator. .

MARTA's investigation later concluded that the weak motor and braking systems caused the failures on two escalators at the Five Points station. A third escalator failed at the Georgia Dome station.

MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott at the time portrayed the accidents as isolated incidents. She contended the transit system could only document one other case of an escalator going into a free-fall, that one at the Civic Center station in 2002.

But riders interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described free falls going back for more than a decade. Maintenance records acquired under the state Open Records Act showed one of the escalators involved in the New Year's Eve accident was reported as going into a "free fall" on Nov. 17, 2007. A repairman from Elevator Specialists reported that he could not find a problem with the escalator.

Cyndi McCarty said the same thing happened to her in 2003 and a Fulton County jury awarded her $525,000 from MARTA in 2008 for her injuries.

McCarty said  she broke her neck in 2003 when the down escalator in the Peachtree Center station failed and sped downward, dumping patrons on the platform.

Woody Sampson, the lawyer who represented MARTA, contends the Peachtree Center escalator was not operating and was being used as a stairwell at the time accident. He said a patron walking down the extra-long escalator fainted and knocked over riders, creating a domino effect.

Sampson declined to discuss the Weeks case, in which he is also representing MARTA, except to say it was "a lot different" than McCarty's.

Goldberg, who represented McCarty, said Weeks' shattered femur has left her with ancillary leg problems. The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages, including punitive ones. But Goldberg noted she also suffered damages for which there is no compensation.

She missed seeing Auburn beat Clemson 23-20.