Most negligence cases do not require an expert to prove liability. A recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision, however, illustrates the necessity of obtaining the appropriate experts in fire-negligence lawsuits. The case, Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, LTD., involved a fatal hotel fire that was started when someone threw a lit cigarette butt into mulch beside the hotel. The fire spread to a storage closet and then up a stairway to the second floor where a family became trapped.
The surviving family members filed a lawsuit against the hotel and fire sprinkler inspection companies that were hired to assess the operating condition of a hotel’s sprinkler system. They claimed that the fire sprinkler inspection companies failed to inform the hotel owner about a flaw in the design of the hotel’s sprinkler system. Specifically, the plaintiffs hired an expert that generally concluded that the defendants failed to exercise reasonable care by failing to notify the hotel owner that a sprinkler was needed in the storage closet. The expert, however, was unable to cite any published standard that supported his opinion. After considering the Uniform Fire Code and other factors relevant to sprinkler inspections, the Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff was essentially asking a jury to speculate as to the proper standard of care. The Supreme Court noted that although in most negligence cases the Plaintiff is not required to establish the applicable standard of care, in some cases the jury is not competent to supply the standard by which to measure the defendant’s conduct. In such cases, the plaintiff must instead establish the requisite standard of care and the defendant’s deviation from the standard by presenting reliable expert testimony on the subject.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that the highly-technical issues concerning the fire sprinkler system required an expert to establish the applicable standard of care. The Court further concluded that the plaintiffs expert was insufficient because he gave only inadmissible “net opinions,” that is, opinions without a reliable factual basis.