No Expert Necessary in Elevator Injury Case

A commuter who claims she was hurt while trying to board an elevator at a PATH station has gotten the go-ahead from a New Jersey appeals court to proceed with her personal injury suit absent any expert testimony, based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

“We reject defendants’ argument that the cause of the malfunction was so complex or specialized that the fact-finder would be unable to understand it without an expert witness,” wrote the two-judge panel in Lazarus v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH) on Dec. 29, 2014. “On the contrary, plaintiff can rely on the common knowledge and experience of the fact-finder to deduce what happened without an expert’s opinion.”

The opinion by Appellate Division Judges Margaret Hayden and Thomas Sumners Jr. reversed a decision by Hudson County Superior Court Judge Lourdes Santiago, who threw out the case on summary judgment after excluding the plaintiff’s expert report and then finding that the plaintiff could not prove her case without expert testimony.

The court emphasized that res ipsa is not a theory of liability but a method by which a plaintiff can circumstantially prove negligence by inferring it. It allows a plaintiff who lacks direct proof of negligence to establish a prima facie case and shift the burden of production to the defendant to explain why the malfunction occurred, on the rationale that the defendant is more knowledgeable and has greater access to such evidence, Hayden and Sumners said.

The judges cited no case exactly on point, but noted that “New Jersey courts have consistently recognized the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur in cases involving malfunctioning complex instrumentalities,” such as escalators, falling elevators and automatic sliding doors.

Reported By: New Jersey Law Journal, 12/31/14

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