Does a person who is injured in an overcrowded waiting room need an expert witness to prove fault on the part of the physician’s office? According to a recent decision by a New Jersey appellate court, a person injured in an overcrowded waiting room can hold the physician’s office liable only if the office has breached an applicable municipal safety or fire code, or if the injured patient puts forward an expert witness to testify as to the unsafe conditions caused by the overcrowded waiting room.
In the case of Baum v. Harry John Coniaris, LLC, a woman named Karen Baum was injured in a waiting room when she tripped and fell as she walked past another patient’s wheelchair. Karen Baum and her husband sued the physician’s office, arguing that the office had been negligent by allowing the waiting room to become overcrowded, and that this overcrowding had caused Karen’s injuries.
The suit was dismissed at trial, with the trial judge holding that the case could not go forward because the Baums had produced no evidence to show that the overcrowded waiting room constituted negligence on the part of the physician’s office. In particular, the trial judge noted that the Baums “did not cite any municipal code or ordinance such as a fire code which states how many people would be a safe number for the size of the waiting room,” nor did they “cite to any statute or common law for the assertion that an overcrowded waiting room on its face is negligence.” In the absence of such evidence, the trial court required that the Baums produce an expert witness to attest to the unsafe conditions caused by the overcrowded waiting room. The Baums provided no such expert witness or report, and so the case was dismissed.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision on appeal, holding that, “[g]iven the absence of applicable codes or regulations governing the waiting room’s capacity . . . expert testimony was required.”
This decision may have far-reaching implications for persons who are injured in a medical office or other such location due to what they believe to be a hazardous on-site condition. If the injured person cannot point to any applicable safety code, regulation, statute, or case law, then he or she may have to produce an expert witness—an expensive and time-consuming endeavor—to attest to the offending party’s negligence.