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No Expert Needed in Elevator Malfunction Case, Supreme Court Says

[caption id="attachment_13606" align="aligncenter" width="561"] Photo: Vladimir Kolobov/iStockphoto.com[/caption] The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a woman injured when an elevator door repeatedly opened and closed on her does not have to present expert testimony to prove negligence. Justice Barry Albin, writing for a unanimous court, said the res ipsa loquitor doctrine, meaning "the thing speaks for itself," applies in a case such as this. "The res ipsa loquitor inference of negligence is applicable because common experience instructs that elevator doors—however complex their operation may be—ordinarily should not strike a person entering or exiting an elevator in the absence of negligence," Albin wrote in McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association. The court turned to its 2005 ruling in Jerista v. Murray, where it said the res ipsa loquitor doctrine applied in the case of a plaintiff who was injured by a malfunctioning automatic supermarket door. "We cannot discern a rational distinction between the two classes of cases—elevator doors and automatic doors," Albin wrote in Tuesday's decision. In Jerista, he said, "We rejected the notion that a negligence action involving a complex instrumentality necessarily required the patron to produce expert testimony to gain the res ipsa inference." According to the court, plaintiff Maureen McDaid, who has cerebral palsy, was a resident of the Aztec West Condominium in Hackensack, where she was injured on Oct. 14, 2010. She was attempting to exit an elevator when the door started opening and closing on her, she claims. She sustained several injuries, and filed a lawsuit against the condo association and its maintenance manager, Bergen Hydraulic Elevator. A subsequent inspection of the elevator showed that its electronic eye was malfunctioning, the court noted. McDaid's expert said the electronic eye issue caused the accident, but the suit was dismissed in Hudson County Superior Court based on McDaid's failure to show that the defendants had actual or constructive notice of the malfunction. The Appellate Division affirmed the ruling, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear McDaid's appeal. Albin, in Tuesday's reversal, said, "The rationale of the res ipsa loquitor inference is that the injury-causing occurrence would not happen in the absence of negligence and that the party controlling the instrumentality is in the best position to explain what went wrong and why." Albin noted that courts in a number of jurisdictions—Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida and Pennsylvania—have reached the same conclusion. "We now hold that, in a negligent-maintenance action against a premises' owner and others who exercise exclusive control, the res ipsa loquitor principles … apply as strongly to malfunctioning elevator doors as they do to malfunctioning automatic doors," he said. "To gain the benefit of the res ipsa loquitor inference, McDaid does not have to present expert testimony pinpointing the cause of the malfunction," and "was not required to provide evidence that excluded other possible causes of her injuries," Albin said. McDaid's attorney, Lisa Lehrer of the Teaneck office of Davis Saperstein & Salomon, noted that her client has since died, but the estate is still pursuing the claim. "It should help people in the same situation in the future," Lehrer said. Aztec's attorney, Robert Mormile of Farkas & Donohue in Florham Park, declined to comment. Bergen Hydraulic's attorney, Brian Calistri of the Philadelphia office of Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, also didn't return a call seeking comment.