Plaintiff Cora Kerton, on behalf of J.R., her minor daughter, filed suit against the County of Hudson and the Board of Education for the Hudson County Schools of Technology, as well as the superintendent and principal of the school, due to an injury that her daughter suffered in gym class. Her daughter suffered an injury to her foot while participating as a student in her gym class at County Prep, a high school in the school district. In Kerton v. Hudson County, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 962 (App. Div. May 20, 2020), the issue was whether the plaintiff needed an expert to establish the standard of care owed by the defendants in supervising the gym class.
On the day of the accident, the plaintiff was a sophomore at County Prep. The principal was responsible for creating the school’s master calendar which included the class periods. The school had one gymnasium. In 2014, two gym classes and one fitness class typically used the gymnasium during a single class period. Each gym teacher ordinarily provided instruction to that teacher’s class. However, at certain times, all three classes were brought together for joint instruction. Joint instruction occurred at least once per week.
On the day of the accident, the three classes were brought together for other exercises. One teacher instructed the students to begin interval running, which required transitioning from walking to running and back to walking. The minor J.R. stated that she had transitioned from walking to running when she approached students who were still walking. She attempted to go around them when she fell. She claims certain students were using cell phones at the time. At the time that she fell, the teacher was in the gym teacher’s office.
Due to the fall, she suffered a displaced fracture of the fifth metatarsal base and avulsion fracture to the tip of the fibular malleolus in her right ankle. She needed surgery to repair the fracture of her foot and stabilize the ankle. She underwent a second surgery to have one the screws removed that had been used to repair the fracture.
At the trial court level, the defendants all filed a motion for summary judgment. They argued that the plaintiff failed to establish that at the time she fell, the County Prep gymnasium constituted a dangerous condition of public property under the Tort Claims Act. They also argued that she failed to show that the defendants breached any duty of care. Additionally, the County filed a motion, making among other arguments that the plaintiff’s negligence claim failed because she could not establish a standard of care for the teachers at the County Prep without expert testimony.
The trial judge noted that plaintiff was not asserting a claim that the gymnasium itself constituted a dangerous condition of public property. Rather, plaintiff’s claim was based on the alleged negligence of defendants. The judge determined that the negligence claim failed as a matter of law because plaintiff did not establish the standard of care owed by “a teacher who was supervising a large class in the middle of the day.” The judge found that to prove such a standard would require the expertise of someone who had experience in teaching and education and supervising children in class. He found that the common knowledge doctrine did not relieve the plaintiff of the obligation to present expert testimony.
The plaintiff appealed the ruling, claiming that the judge erred by finding that she needed expert testimony to establish the standard of care for her negligence claims and by refusing to apply the common knowledge doctrine.
The Appellate Division noted that “it is well established that teachers and school administrators in New Jersey have a duty to supervise children in their facilities.” The Appellate Division also noted that expert testimony is required “when the matter to be dealt with is so esoteric that jurors of common judgment and experience cannot form a valid judgment as to whether the conduct of the defendant was reasonable.” Further, the Court stated that “without expert testimony, the jury would have to speculate as to the applicable standard of care.”
The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge that the plaintiff was required to present expert testimony to establish the standard of care. The Court noted that the motion judge correctly decided that “the average juror does not have the required understanding of the manner in which school administrators schedule classes, whether students in gym class should be permitted to use electronic devices while exercising and the level of student supervision required when three gym classes have class in a gymnasium at the same time.” The Appellate Division agreed that these subject matters are “so esoteric that jurors of common judgment and experience cannot form a valid judgment.”
The Court also agreed with the trial court judge that the common knowledge doctrine did not apply. The plaintiff had argued that this doctrine applies “when the common knowledge of jurors is sufficient to enable them, using ordinary understanding and experience, to determine a defendant’s negligence without the benefit of the specialized knowledge of experts.” The Appellate Division, however, agreed that an expert was needed in this case to establish the standard of care for the specific claims asserted in this case.
Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision. Because the plaintiff did not have an expert to establish the standard of care, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment, dismissing the lawsuit.
Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.