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Legal analyst offers perspective on fatal elevator accident that killed student

JauMarcus McFarland recently moved to Atlanta from Missouri to play football at Champion Prep Academy.

ATLANTA — Newly released 911 calls from police capture the chaotic scene when an elevator at an Atlanta high rise suddenly dropped, pinning a student-athlete in between two floors. 

The young man trapped was JauMarcus McFarland. He had recently moved from Missouri to Atlanta to attend Champion Prep Academy and play football.

He would be rushed by paramedics from the building at 444 Highland Avenue NE to Atlanta Medical Center immediately next door, but he died a short time later.

State investigators and Atlanta Fire are looking into the cause of the collapse but haven't released any findings so far. 

An online fundraiser is now raising funds to cover his funeral expenses. 

Champion Prep Academy coach Sean Tarrant recruited McFarland to attend the school. McFarland started in early August with hopes of earning a football roster spot with a top university. 

Tarrant believed McFarland had the talent to reach his dreams. 

"This young man was 6'5, 300lb, and he ran like a deer," Tarrant wrote. "He was a tough cookie! Besides all of that, JauMarcus had a smile that would brighten up the world. It was a pleasure coaching this young man. All his fellow teammates loved him and looked to him for his leadership and encouragement!"

In one of six 911 calls made during the incident Tuesday, one caller can be heard saying, "Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet," as a crowd made it hard for him to talk with the dispatcher. 

"How many people in the elevator?" a dispatcher asked a caller. "Like nine of us, 10 of us," the caller replied. Atlanta Fire, though reported that 16 people got off the elevator without injury.

"We have more than 3,000?" someone can be heard asking in the background of one 911 call. 

Three thousand is notably the weight limit for the elevator in question, according to an e-mail the property manager sent 11Alive. 

That e-mail goes on to say, "...the 16 young athletes who were inside the elevator when this occurred pushed that limit to nearly 4,000 lbs. Unfortunately, this appears to be what started the domino effect of events leading to the unfortunate death."

11Alive legal analyst Page Pate said an overloaded elevator though doesn't automatically clear an owner of responsibility.

"It is not one individual's responsibility to make sure that the elevator is not overloaded," Pate said. "Simply because there may have been more people than there should have been in that elevator, that doesn't give immunity to the property owner if there is a fatal accident."

On Tuesday, the state insurance commissioner's office confirmed the yearly inspection permit for the elevator expired in August 2020. 

Pate said that presents a scenario where the owner could be at fault, but the situation isn't cut and dry.

"The question is, did that failure to have it inspected lead to the injury that occurred," Pate said. "In other words, would the inspection have caught something that the property owner could have fixed that may have prevented this particular accident?"

When asked by 11Alive if building ownership is disputing state records that the elevator wasn't inspected in 2020, the property manager replied that ownership of the building changed in December of 2020. 

The manager wrote, "we can’t really answer why that 2020 inspection did or did not occur. We do know the elevator company we have on contract was in the process of requesting the 2021 inspection."  

However, Pate said the change of ownership doesn't allow for someone to escape liability if they otherwise would be at fault. 

"If they had purchased this building the day before the accident, they would still be liable if they failed to have the inspections done properly, and that caused the accident," Pate added. "It is no defense to say someone else was in charge when the inspection should have taken place."