Court Rejects Plaintiff’s Expert’s Assertions as “Inadmissible Net Opinion”

By Voris M. Tejada, Jr. Esq.

In Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Sup. Ct. (Fernandez-Vina, J.) (27 pp.), two children lost their lives following a fire at a hotel.  The parents of the victims brought suit alleging that defendant fire sprinkler inspectors had negligently failed to inform the hotel owner about a flaw in the design of the hotel’s sprinkler system and the need for an additional sprinkler.  The issue before the court was whether plaintiffs’ expert adequately supported his asserted standard of care, or whether he offered an inadmissible net opinion.

Both plaintiffs and defendants obtained expert reports addressing the standard of care by which the performance of the defendants’ inspectors should be measured.  Defendants’ expert asserted that applicable provisions of the Uniform Fire Code (UFC) delineated the extent of care that defendants’ inspectors were required to exercise.  Because the UFC did not obligate the inspectors to evaluate the need for an additional sprinkler, nor to notify the hotel owner about any such need, defendants’ expert concluded that the inspectors had complied with the requisite standard of care.  In contrast, plaintiffs’ expert asserted that reasonable care obligates fire sprinkler inspectors to take additional precautions beyond those set forth in the UFC.  Plaintiffs’ expert thus concluded that defendants’ inspectors failed to exercise reasonable care when they neglected to notify the hotel owner of the need for an additional sprinkler.

The Court noted that New Jersey Rule of Evidence 403 provides that an expert’s testimony “may be based on facts or data derived from (1) the expert’s personal observations, or (2) evidence admitted at the trial, or (3) data relied upon by the expert which is not necessarily admissible in evidence but which is the type of data normally relied upon by experts forming opinions on the same subject.”  In contrast, an expert’s bare conclusions, unsupported by factual evidence, are inadmissible.  As such, “a trial court may not rely on expert testimony that lacks an appropriate factual foundation and fails to establish the existence of any standard about which the expert testified.”

Before examining the testimony given by plaintiffs’ expert, the court first noted that compliance with the UFC does not, as a matter of law, prevent a finding of negligence.  “[T]he customs of an industry are not conclusive on the issue of the proper standard of care; they are at most evidential of this standard.”

Plaintiffs’ expert opined that, despite their compliance with the UFC, defendants’ inspectors had a duty to satisfy a higher standard of care and report design flaws.  However, the Court found that the expert provided no objective support for this conclusion.  None of the sources relied upon by the expert addressed the role of sprinkler inspectors or supported his conclusion regarding what actions a reasonable inspector would have taken.  Instead, the expert relied upon nothing more than his personal opinion about what the inspectors should have done.  Because his opinion as to the applicable standard of care was a mere conclusion that lacked an appropriate factual foundation, the Court rejected plaintiffs’ expert’s assertions as an “inadmissible net opinion.”  Absent an expert opinion to support a standard of care beyond that prescribed in the UFC, plaintiffs were unable to satisfy their burden to establish the applicable standard of care and breach thereof, entitling defendants to judgment as a matter of law.