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Expert Testimony Needed to Establish Negligence Claim Based Upon Violation of State And Local Codes

By on October 6, 2017 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Cornelia Wright was a tenant, living on the fourth floor of a Jersey City apartment building owned by defendant Premier Business Management, when she fell and was injured, while walking down a dark stairwell in the building.  The building’s power was out due to an electrical power outage in Jersey City from Super Storm Sandy.  The issue in Wright v. Premier Business Management, No. A-3002-15T3, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1415 (App. Div. June 9, 2017), was whether the plaintiff needed an expert to establish the standard of care in a negligence case when it was founded on alleged violations of state and local codes.

When Super Storm Sandy made landfall on October 28, 2012, it caused the apartment building where plaintiff lived to be without electrical power from October 29, 2012 to November 1, 2012.  The building had two stairwells, which lighting was supplied by electrical lamps.  When the electricity in the building was not working, the stairwell landings were lit by emergency lamps powered by six volt batteries.  The emergency lamps were wired to the building’s electrical power, which charged the batteries, and when the power was lost, the batteries no longer received a charge.  The battery power to the emergency lamps was limited to six hours.

At about 9:30 p.m. on October 31, 2012, plaintiff was walking down a dark stairwell in the building, which was lit only by a small flashlight she was carrying.  When she reached the last two steps in the stairwell, she mistakenly believed she reached the ground floor and fell.  She suffered a right ankle fracture due to the fall.

Plaintiff sued, claiming her injuries were as a result of the defendant’s negligence.  She alleged that her injuries were caused by a failure of emergency lighting, as required by numerous state and local codes, and that the defendant maintained and operated the building in a negligent manner so as to cause a hazardous condition.  In her Answers to Interrogatories, which asked her to detail the basis of the defendant’s negligence, she stated that the defendant failed to abide by state and local building codes but did not enumerate further the applicable codes.

The trial court found that it is the plaintiff’s requirement to establish the applicable standard of care when it is beyond a lay person’s common knowledge.  Where a jury lacks the competence to supply the applicable standard of care, the plaintiff must establish the standard by presenting reliable expert testimony on the subject.  However, the plaintiff failed to provide an expert report on the applicable codes. On the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the court determined that because plaintiff’s negligence claim was founded on alleged violations of state and local codes, expert testimony was required. Thus, it granted summary judgment to the defendant, dismissing the lawsuit.

Upon appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with this holding.  The Court found that plaintiff’s claim that the defendant deviated from a standard of care, defined by state and local codes, required expert testimony.  Expert testimony was required to define the alleged standard and defendant’s alleged deviation from it.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that her cause of action was viable under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor.  Based upon this doctrine, if it applied, an inference of negligence would be permitted to establish a prima facie case of negligence.  However, the Court rejected the application of this doctrine because it found that the electrical outage was beyond the defendant’s control and the plaintiff’s negligence claim was based upon alleged violations of the state and local codes.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision, dismissing plaintiff’s Complaint.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

“Best Law Firms” is published by Best Lawyers in partnership with U.S. News & World Report. For a description of the selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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