Fort Worth

Contractor warned JPS to stop repairing elevators themselves week before nurse’s injury

The company hired to maintain the 47 elevators at John Peter Smith Hospital properties sent hospital officials a cease-and-desist letter on Jan. 11 that strongly urged them to stop “the dangerous practice of working on and resetting elevators themselves,” according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.

In the letter, which was delivered to the hospital on Jan. 14, Thyssenkrupp Elevator said that “an elevator is a complicated piece of equipment and, as such, elevator-related repairs performed by untrained individuals can put the safety of these maintenance personnel and the riding public at risk.”

Six days after the letter was delivered to the hospital, a nurse was seriously injured when she was crushed between the 10th and 11th floors while trying to ride elevator No. 29, which is a purple elevator in the hospital’s tower.

The letter makes a reference to elevators 20 and 21, but does not mention No. 29.

The letter strongly encouraged the hospital to stop the practice of repairing and resetting the elevators and said that “should this practice continue, you will leave us no choice but to evaluate our options under the parties’ agreement and the law.”

The letter was sent by Rick Karnes, the service operations manager for Thyssenkrupp’s Fort Worth Branch.

Emails and phone messages to JPS were not immediately returned, but the hospital wrote a statement on Twitter on Thursday afternoon.

“We never repair elevators. We save lives,” JPS Chief Executive Officer Robert Earley said. “And we never jeopardize the health or safety of our patients, team members or visitors by forcing them to remain in elevators which are incapacitated by TKE’s failure to live up to its obligations. When every minute spent trapped in a broken elevator can be the difference between life and death, JPS team members will respond. What would you have us do, wait minutes, sometimes hours for TKE workers to show up? There is nothing in the contract JPS has with TKE that prevents us from responding appropriately when someone is trapped inside an elevator.”

After nurse Carren Stratford was injured on Jan. 20, Earley sent Thyssenkrupp Elevators several letters expressing his concern over what he believed was a lack of response to the problems. The hospital has posted the letters publicly.

At a news conference on Feb. 15, Earley said he has looked at changing elevator contractors.

“I’m doing anything I can do to make sure these elevators are safe,” he said. Earley couldn’t provide specific steps of what is being done, other than holding Thyssenkrupp accountable for its responsibilities under its contract with the hospital.

“The one thing we’re not is elevator experts,” he said. “We do trauma care. ... We are not elevator experts. We hire elevator experts, and we thought we had elevator experts. It’s been really devastating.”

In a statement sent to the Star-Telegram on Thursday, Thyssenkrupp Regional President Peter Engwer said: “Hospital staffers, while they may be well-meaning, are complicating efforts to repair elevators. When these staffers reset a stopped elevator, it erases the diagnostic record that is critical for our maintenance personnel to determine the root cause.”

Engwer said Thyssenkrupp has a full-time technician who is at the hospital daily.

“The tragic accident involving Ms. Stratford demands that we all fulfill some very important responsibilities,” Engwer said. “Pray for her recovery; determine what happened and why so it doesn’t happen again; and ensure the safe operation of all elevators at JPS hospital. The manner in which JPS has treated us since January 20 suggests that JPS Hospital is more concerned with casting blame than focusing on any of those more important items.”

Engwer said there has been a lack of communication from JPS since the accident.

“Moreover, JPS Hospital’s interaction with Thyssenkrupp since January 20 is a wholesale departure from the strong relationship our two organizations had up until that time,” he said. “Since taking over the service of JPS Hospital’s elevators in 2014, Thyssenkrupp’s full-time onsite resident mechanic had an excellent relationship with JPS Hospital’s facility personnel, and we had received positive feedback about our level of service from both hospital personnel and the hospital’s third-party elevator consultant.”

Asked on Thursday if the cease-and-desist letter sent to JPS a week before Stratford was injured will affect any future litigation, her attorney Kern Lewis said, “We didn’t know about the letter before (Thursday) and we don’t know yet what specific actions the letter is referring to.”

He declined to comment further.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.