The civil lawsuit accusing Houston’s Omni Hotel and Otis Elevators of negligence in the death of Jill Renick who during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was trapped in an elevator and ultimately drowned in the hotel basement, has been amended to include an earlier similar incident.
On September 4, an amended petition was filed in the 44th Civil District Court in Dallas County saying that the Omni should have changed its safety procedures and recognized the extreme danger of flooding at the hotel next to Buffalo Bayou after a separate incident in which another employee was trapped in a basement elevator in 2015.
According to the amended petition filed by the family’s lawyer Rob Crain of Crain Lewis Brogdon, LLP.:
“In the Memorial Day Weekend flood of 2015, the hotel suffered major flood damage causing it to be closed for more than a month, in part because of flooding to the basement. During this flood, an Omni employee was similarly trapped in an elevator in the basement due to flood waters. The employee had just delivered toiletries to a guest when he embarked on an elevator. While on the elevator, power to the hotel appeared to be interrupted; the elevator then went to the basement level. When the elevator approached the basement level, it stopped and flood waters began to enter the elevator with the elevator doors still closed. The employee was trapped in the elevator. The employee had a hand-held radio and his cell phone. He called the front desk for help. A building engineer ultimately arrived in the basement and physically opened the doors of the elevator to free the employee. The water level in the basement was at the employee’s waist upon his exit.”
According to the lawsuit originally filed on June 4, 2018, on behalf of Renick’s sister and mother, Renick, who was the spa manager for the hotel, was asked to come downstairs by the front desk from her fourth floor room. She was not told of the rising flood waters and the elevators had not been shut down. It is not known why she ended up in the service elevator going to the basement because she couldn’t access the service elevator from the floor she lived on.
In Renick’s case she was not as lucky as the employee two years before. Although she called the front desk on her cell phone, no help arrived. She was heard pounding on the elevator doors screaming for aid, but no one rescued her. She was able to force open the doors to the elevator in the basement, but as the water rose there, she ran out of air holes. She drowned and it wasn’t until 11 days later that her body was recovered.
In making their claim of negligence, plaintiffs point out that hotel employees were seen moving furniture from the lower levels as early as 2 a.m., but guests were not informed of the flooding. Renick was asked to come down at 5:15 a.m. and by 5:40 a.m. phone records show she was calling for help. A video camera tracked her movements across the flooded basement until 5:45 a.m., after that she is not seen alive.
“Although it is yet unknown exactly how long the Hotel was aware of the impending flood, it is clear the Omni Hotel knew of the dangerous flooding conditions well before 4:45:00 AM, when Jill and other hotel guests were sleeping. Despite the obvious and dangerous conditions, multiple members of the Hotel’s Emergency Response Team chose not to stay at the hotel, including the Director of Engineering, John Miller. The Director of Engineering is the person responsible to communicate with Otis Elevator to shut off the elevators in a time of probable flooding. Otis was never called to shut off the elevators.”
The amended petition also adds two more defendants — National Elevator Inspection Services and American Elevator Inspections — who along with Otis Elevators and the hotel are accused of negligence in Renick’s death. According to the lawsuit, the city of Houston’s building and elevator code requires the type of elevator Renick was on to have a flood sensor and it did not.
Previously representatives of Omni and Otis Elevators have declined comment saying they don’t make statements on ongoing litigation.