Boy Who Saw His Brother’s Elevator-Shaft Death Is Drawn Into Lawsuit


yaakov-neumanManny Fernandez of the New York Times reports:
Israel Neuman is in many ways no different from other 9-year-olds. He enjoys drawing, performing magic tricks and playing the drums, trumpet and keyboard. He says “please” and answers the telephone properly at home, in the apartment he shares with his parents and three siblings at a public housing complex in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But he has not been the same since August. He acts out at school and once stole from the classroom charity box. He will not use the bathroom unless someone stands outside the door. He has nightmares and often awakens and tells his parents that he is scared. One day in play therapy, he drew an elevator shaft with red at the bottom.

Israel was trapped inside a stalled elevator with his younger brother, Jacob, 5, on the morning of Aug. 19, 2008. Jacob tried to jump out, but he fell 10 stories down the shaft to his death. A neighbor heard Israel’s screams and got him out of the elevator.

Nearly 10 months later, Israel has been thrust into the center of his family’s lawsuit against the building’s landlord, the New York City Housing Authority. Lawyers representing the agency wanted to question and conduct a psychological examination of Israel, a move that upset his parents and had the effect of delaying the case for months. It has forced the agency to walk a fine line in balancing its legal rights with the grief of the Neuman family and of Israel in particular.

In September, the Neuman family filed a notice of claim against the agency, a precursor to the filing of a lawsuit. The notice of claim seeks damages for wrongful death and mental and emotional distress, and accuses the agency of negligence. The electrical malfunctions that caused the elevator to stall and the cab door to open stemmed from faulty maintenance, according to elevator experts and an accident report from the city’s Department of Buildings.

The agency, represented by the law firm of Herzfeld & Rubin, wanted Israel, who is named as a claimant, to testify in a pre-lawsuit hearing. The agency is entitled under state law to question and examine those who file a notice of claim against it about the nature of the injuries and damages claimed, in deposition-style sessions known as 50-h hearings.

The Neuman family’s lawyer, Herbert S. Subin, asked the judge to waive the agency’s right to the testimony, arguing that it would be harmful to Israel. Jacob and Israel’s mother, Reizel Neuman, was questioned by lawyers for the agency in March.

Justice Wayne Saitta of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn appointed a psychologist to determine the effect of testifying on Israel. The psychologist, Joseph Weinreb of Queens, wrote in his report after interviewing Israel and others close to him that testifying would be “psychologically harmful” to the boy.

“His defenses are so brittle that when thoughts regarding the incident reach or are introduced into his consciousness, he becomes despondent and he desperately defends against them,” Dr. Weinreb wrote in the May 25 report. “It is quite possible, given his present state, that serious mental decomposition may occur. That this will occur is not certain; if it does, it will be devastating indeed.”

Jacob and Israel were headed to school when the elevator got stuck between the 11th and 10th floors. The malfunction caused the elevator’s cab door to open, and the boys were able to manually open the outer door opening onto the 10th floor, the Buildings Department’s report said. When Jacob tried to jump out onto the floor, he fell backward under the elevator and into the shaft.

Their parents were crossing the Williamsburg Bridge when they learned of the accident, and they raced home. A crisis responder with the Chai Lifeline program contacted Israel’s teachers and had them come to the apartment and tell him it was not his fault, the psychologist’s report stated. In accordance with Jewish custom, the funeral was held that afternoon, attended by hundreds of people from the Brooklyn Hasidic community.

Every Friday, Israel goes to a Brooklyn mental health clinic for play therapy, which he began five weeks after Jacob’s death. His play therapist, Chaim Winter, said Israel has post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Dr. Weinreb’s report. Israel’s teacher told Dr. Weinreb that the boy had trouble concentrating and sometimes slapped other children. Some retaliate but others do not. “They all know what happened to his brother, so they consider him to be a ‘rachmoonus’ case,” the report stated, using a Yiddish word, usually spelled rachmones, for pity.

On June 5, based in part on the psychologist’s report, Justice Saitta ruled that the family can bring a lawsuit without Israel’s testimony. The Housing Authority reserved its right to the testimony at a later date, when and if Israel is deemed capable of testifying by a court-appointed psychologist. And Justice Saitta allowed the Housing Authority to conduct its own psychological exam of Israel. The doctor who conducts the exam for the agency will not be allowed to ask Israel questions about the accident, Mr. Subin said.

A Housing Authority spokesman said the agency does not comment on continuing litigation. In a statement in December, Ricardo Elías Morales, then the agency’s general counsel, said the agency’s goal was to learn more about the accident. “All involved in this matter want to obtain certainty about the circumstances of this event, but at this point, no one has all of the information needed to objectively determine what happened in this awful incident,” he said. “The family’s counsel’s filing of the notice of claim triggers certain fact-finding procedures that have not yet occurred.”

Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society, questioned what the agency could gain from Israel’s testimony. “It seems so clear that a 9-year-old would be traumatized by witnessing his 5-year-old brother’s horrific death,” Mr. Banks said. “You have to wonder what the lawyers could realistically seek to accomplish by questioning him about it at this stage of the litigation.”

Eugene Nathanson, a Manhattan lawyer and a former member of the board of the New York County Lawyers’ Association, said the Housing Authority was well within its rights to seek Israel’s testimony. “Who knows what this child saw?” Mr. Nathanson said. “From the defendants’ point of view, they don’t know what he saw, and they want to find out if possibly he did see something that will help them investigate.”

Children and teenagers have been known to vandalize and play dangerous games on the top of elevator cabs in public housing buildings, but the Buildings Department’s accident report ruled out the possibility that the two boys caused the elevator to stop and the cab door to open.

Mr. Subin said he believed that the Housing Authority would not learn anything significant about the accident from Israel’s testimony. “There’s been a definitive statement of what happened in the accident,” Mr. Subin said, referring to the 52-page accident report.

Mrs. Neuman and her husband, Chaim Neuman, said in a statement that they were “deeply conflicted” about Israel’s involvement in the lawsuit. “We know the Housing Authority’s negligence caused deep emotional scars in Israel,” the statement read. “We also know that we have to protect his right to compensation as well as to protect his emotional well-being.”

The family rides the same elevator that Jacob fell out of as they travel to and from their 11th-floor apartment, in the Taylor Street-Wythe Avenue Houses. The Housing Authority is scheduled to replace the two elevators in their building and other elevators in the complex, part of a plan to improve elevator service that the agency announced after the death of Jacob.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


  1. The Neuman family has suffered enough! Forcing Israel to testify would be making them suffer again, rubbing salt into their wounds, at the hands of the guilty. The testimony of the play therapist working with Israel should be more than acceptible.

  2. isn’t posting israels medical information a violation of patient right to privacy.?why does the public need to know his medical history