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Laurence Tribe's case against the Social Safeway: Top legal scholar stuck in elevator

The grand re-opening of the Georgetown "Social Safeway" in May, before the elevator had claimed any high-profile victims. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Not even the most creative legal scholar would call what happened last weekend at the Social Safeway "false imprisonment," but at the time, it almost felt like that for Laurence Tribe.

Laurence Tribe in 2006. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The famed constitutional law professor and his girlfriend spent a miserable 13 minutes trapped in a hot elevator at the posh Georgetown grocery mecca, a situation they fear could put others at risk. It happened late Sunday morning, when Tribe and Elizabeth Westling headed into the store. They walked into the elevator at ground level, hit the button to go up, and -- nothing.

As the compartment heated up, they hit the emergency button. A dispatcher responded, Westling told our colleague, Lisa Rein. "She put us on hold, then we got a dial tone."

It got hotter. No signal on their cellphones. They banged on the door. Someone identifying himself as a firefighter shouted back and said a rescue squad was on the way. "We were getting short of air," said Tribe, 68.

Finally, he forced the doors open. Once out, they blocked the entrance with shopping carts: "There was a continuing peril for the public." But the firefighter left before they could file a report. A manager, apologizing, said she didn't hear the alarm.

In this town, you really don't want to tick off a lawyer. Especially one who has argued 30-some cases before the Supreme Court. Tribe, who took leave from Harvard to work at the Justice Department under his prize pupil, President Barack Obama, said he's not feeling very litigious ("I don't think it's our style") -- but he's dismayed by Safeway's reaction: A risk manager called, promising an investigation and some free wine.

"They need to be publicly accountable," Tribe said.

What happened? Craig Muckle, a public affairs manager for Safeway, told Rein that the lubricant in the elevator motor probably got too hot, gumming up the system. The store will install an oil cooler -- and also scold the off-site monitoring service for not responding faster. As for Tribe and Westling, Safeway "is trying to figure out what kind of resolution is appropriate," he said. "We could have offered some steaks or a gift card. . . . We'd like to keep them at Safeway." (Just not, presumably, by force.)

By The Reliable Source  |  July 23, 2010; 1:05 AM ET
Categories:  44: Obama's Washington  
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"There was continuing peril to the public."

"They need to be publicly accountable."

Golly, I love this town!

Posted by: cfow1 | July 23, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

13 minutes?!!? Get over it nancy....

Posted by: ghokee | July 23, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Mary Cheh will take this up at the next DC Council meeting . . .

Posted by: ah___ | July 23, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Wow, 13 whole minutes. And a top legal scholar to boot. Just let me over here for a tissue ...

Posted by: blackforestcherry | July 23, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Another case of it only counts when it happens to me. Like all of the elites when it happens to others they could care less, happens to them , first thing is "lets sue".

Posted by: cowboybill117 | July 23, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

“They need to be publicly accountable," Tribe said. What a joke you where stuck in an elevator for 13 minutes. You’re just as bad as the guy who sued the drycleaners.
Let hold some hearings about it.
1 DC fire and EMS did not get there fast enough for you.
2 Safeway should have perfect elevators that don’t brake.
3 Tribe is a great legal mind that is not smart enough to figure out that elevators are not air tight and that his young girl friend has bad taste.

Posted by: jamesf1 | July 23, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I can't think of a more deserving man to be stuck in an elevator.

Posted by: MKadyman | July 23, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Wahhhh! The world is not perfect like me. Somebody owes me some groveling!

What a jerk. Now we know where Barry gets it from.

Posted by: bobmoses | July 23, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

This is actually also a problem with the 2 elevators between the garage and store level at the Dupont Circle Whole Foods (P street between 14th & 15th). I don't think I have ever successfully gotten from one level to another in either of those elevators. You get in, press a floor, the doors close and nothing happens. Luckily, when this has happened to me, the doors open back up in a minute or so, but I worry that they won't open back up at all. So I've given up on the elevator. I've told employees about this but nothing seems to be done about it.

Posted by: snowdendantan | July 25, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

13 minutes? Geez, get a life. I was caught in an elevator for an hour and 45 minutes once. They got "short of air"? Please, give me a break.

Posted by: djlawman | July 26, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I suggest an additional five-cent charge on all Safeway plastic bags to help fund the elevator lubricant cooler.

I took con law from Prof. Tribe at HLS in the 80s. He was a much more relaxed person back then and would have just made jokes about this in class.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 26, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

what a self-absorbed prick . . . gives lawyers a bad name.

Posted by: RBCrook | July 26, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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