Beware the end of the escalator, our mothers always said—if you don’t hop off quickly, your shoe will get caught.
Most of us figured this was some kind of urban (or suburban shopping mall) myth. If you’re wearing wingtip shoes or even sneakers, it would be hard for the escalator teeth to grab those hard materials. And who knew anyone to whom that had actually happened?
Turns out, it’s happened to plenty of folks, many of them children and many of them wearing the ubiquitous rubber clog known as Crocs.
Crocs was started in 2002, in Boulder, Colorado, to sell foam rubber boat shoes (they’re named after crocodiles, comfortable on land and in water). Nine years later, the brand reached $1 billion in sales. They have more than 200 styles, sold in 90 countries.
Parents love Crocs for the ease with which they come on and off, their durability and easiness to clean and of course the rainbow of colors in which they are available. Yet some have found out the hard way that in addition to being affordable and adorable, they can potentially be dangerous.
The lawsuits claiming as much are many. In 2012 a couple from Westminster, California, sued the company for $2 million when their four-year-old daughter’s pink Croc was caught in the side of the escalator; she lost her little toe. A Pennsylvania woman sued in 2008 for $7.5 million. Crocs has settled many of them, including one for a boy injured in the Atlanta airport in 2008; he will receive payments (the amount was not disclosed) once he turns 18. Andrew Laskin, an attorney with Robinson and Yablon, P.C., a Manhattan law firm, says his firm has handled 20 such cases; all but one have been settled.
Many of the suits go beyond personal injury suits, claiming negligence on the part of the company. Crocs, they assert, knew that the rubber clogs were dangerous in escalators and did nothing. One court case found that Crocs had contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission, acknowledging that the company had fielded 186 complaints about escalator injuries regarding children and done nothing.
These parents do have at least some evidence on their sides. A 2010 study in The Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics looked at 17 children with escalator-related foot industries in one hospital over two years; 13 of those were wearing rubber clogs. One of those had “an unsalvageable traumatic amputation of the great toe at the level of the interphalangeal joint,” and others had fractures, lacerations and cut tendons. The study’s conclusion: “Escalator-related foot injuries involving rubber clogs can result in severe crushing of the foot and even traumatic amputation.”
Crocs, of course, disagrees. “There is no evidence Crocs’ shoes are more likely to become entrapped in escalators than other soft-soled shoes,” a spokesman for the company told Quartz in an email. “Even so, Crocs launched an escalator safety awareness initiative, which included the implementation of educational hang tags on Crocs’ products worldwide. We did this because Crocs cares about the safety, comfort, and satisfaction of consumers and the popularity of our shoes give us an opportunity to educate millions of our customers on the importance of escalator safety. The most important safety factors for escalators and moving walkways are rider behavior and proper maintenance of escalators.” In other words: they may be more dangerous than wingtips and sneakers, but they are no more dangerous than any other soft-soled shoe, of which there are many.
Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found Crocs wasn’t liable (pdf) in another personal injury case, ruling that “we cannot tell whether CROCS present a heightened risk of escalator entrapment. What we can tell, however, is that the plaintiff has failed to adduce significantly probative evidence to that effect.”
Meanwhile, the company has changed its image to stay relevant. Perhaps because of the growth in the aging boomer population, Crocs, like comfort brands Birkenstock and Dansko, has tried to keep the comfort but add some style. In addition to the so commonly seen clogs (wide enough for an ogre) with large ventilation holes, there are wedge sandals, loafers, boots and Mary Janes.
Lawsuits, even those that are won, aren’t definitive proof of poor design and certainly not of negligence—even those who are the most cynical about capitalism don’t believe that footwear company would knowingly design dangerous shoes. Perhaps one reason for the rash of lawsuits is the popularity of the shoes: Crocs has sold more than 200 million pairs of them over the last decade. It doesn’t mean they’re actually defective. It mostly means it’s harder to sue the company of the flip-flops you got at the dollar store, with no manufacturers name to be found. And flip-flops are just as dangerous. The CPSC noted 77 such injuries over two years, noting that “Soft-sided shoes are the most likely to get stuck and pose the possibility of injury to the rider.” That’s any soft-soled shoe, not just the one you know the name of.
Parents, how about this: if you’re bringing your kid on an escalator in anything other than an army boot, pay careful attention to them…just like your mother told you.