Joe was a 30 year old man I evaluated in the context of his lawsuit.

One Friday evening, after everyone had gone home, he was working late at his Manhattan office. At 7:00 PM, he went downstairs to smoke a cigarette. Heading back to the office, he entered the elevator alone. Between the 30th and 31st floors, the elevator came to a sudden stop. He pushed every button, but the doors failed to open. No one responded to the alarm. He tried using the intercom; but still no response.

After an hour, he felt a sense of dread. He knew he was stuck. It was the beginning of a weekend, and the building would be empty until Monday morning. Neither the intercom nor alarm button worked, and no one was there to hear it, anyway. Joe had no food, no toilet, nothing to occupy him, and was alone in an eight by eight foot enclosure, hanging between floors in a Manhattan skyscraper. He was trapped.

Joe kept reasonably calm. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall. He occupied himself by emptying his wallet and studying every item in detail. He counted the lines on the floor, the markings on the elevator ceiling, and slept intermittently. He filled his mind with thoughts about his life. He soon lost all track of time. He managed to slide open the doors for his bathroom needs, but there was no remedy for his increasing hunger and thirst.

By Monday morning, someone spoke on the intercom, and soon after, emergency personnel extricated him. Joe recounted his 60 hour confinement; his initial near-panic anxiety; the onset of acceptance as the hours wore on; and how he diverted his mind during this ordeal.

He filed a lawsuit against the building’s owners, claiming psychologic damages.

He alleged a phobia of elevators and would no longer enter an elevator alone. He reported claustrophobic feelings in any enclosed space and grew avoidant. This seemed understandable, though he acknowledged visiting his attorney whose office was on a high floor of a Manhattan building. Joe lived on the eighth floor of an apartment building and said he used the stairs, not the elevator.

Joe continued working in the same building, but never took an elevator alone. He claimed to use elevators “only when absolutely necessary,” and always with someone. He avoided enclosed spaces such as subways, yet acknowledged taking the subway to visit his psychologist (to whom he was referred by his attorney). Despite his claimed phobia of enclosed spaces, he took airplane trips to cities in the U.S. and Europe.

His reporting seemed somewhat exaggerated and inconsistent. He recounted a trip to Atlantic City with his girlfriend, and their room was on a high floor of the hotel. Surely, he could have asked for one accessible by stairs.

In contrast to his claimed restrictions, Joe engaged repeatedly in activities he claimed were too frightening for him. The recordings from his own apartment building showed him often using the elevator—alone.

The incident was horribly frightening. Joe certainly deserved compensation for enduring that experience. Someone more vulnerable could have developed phobias and led a constricted life. But not Joe. He negotiated the incident well and was not psychologically “scarred.”

At the end of the day—or of a lost weekend—one thing is clear: when evaluating someone involved in a lawsuit, skepticism is appropriate. Money—sometimes jokingly referred to as “the green elixir”—can be a powerful spur to claims of psychological damage.

About the Author

Mark Rubinstein, M.D.

Mark Rubinstein, M.D., is a former professor of psychiatry at Cornell. His most recent book is the novel Mad Dog House.

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