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Trial to tell escalator's history

On one of the busiest shopping days of the year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, a mother browsed the Dillard's at Tyrone Square Mall with her three children.

As the Seminole family walked past the escalator, 5-year-old Kerriana Johnson stepped toward it.

"Get away from the escalator," said the girl's mother, Lori Medvitz, according to court records.

It was too late. The down escalator sucked off Kerriana's shoe without stopping. Kerriana instinctively reached down to retrieve her shoe, and her fingers got stuck, lawyers say.

The cast aluminum steps, weighing 80-90 pounds, crushed down on Kerriana's hand and sliced off three of her fingers, according to court records detailing the incident on Nov. 29, 2002. After the escalator was shut off, police unscrewed steel panels to free Kerriana's hand.

Kerriana's mother is seeking unspecified damages from Dillard's in a negligence lawsuit. Jury selection began Monday, and the 10-day trial is expected to start next Tuesday.

The girl's attorneys say that Dillard's 30-year-old down escalator has been unsafe since as early as 1992, and that employees routinely refer to it as the "meat grinder" and the "crusher." It is the only down escalator used by the public, carrying customers from the women's department to the purses and perfume counters downstairs.

Attorneys say hundreds of people have had problems with the same escalator snagging their shoes.

The people would hobble one-footed over to the shoe department and receive a free pair of shoes. One Dillard's shoe clerk said she replaced as many as six to seven pairs of shoes in one week because of escalator problems.

Dillard's attorneys admit the store has had a "large number of shoe entrapments." But before Kerriana Johnson, no one had been seriously hurt, they say.

In Kerriana's case, Dillard's thinks she was playing on the escalator. They say her mother was negligent in not watching her closely enough.

Although the escalator did not have the most current safeguards, it wasn't required to under state law, Dillard's lawyers say.

The escalator has moved hundreds of thousands of people in recent years, said Dillard's lawyer Bob Stoler, and this was "the only tragedy."