To State The Obvious - Expert Testimony On Issues Of Common Knowledge Will Be Excluded

When a guest of the New Orleans W Hotel was traveling across the hotel’s lobby, she tripped over a low-lying, mirrored coffee table and cut her hand on broken glass. She underwent two surgeries to correct her injuries. 

The guest filed suit in Louisiana state court against Starwood, the owner and operator of the hotel, alleging violations of the Louisiana Merchant Liability Statute, as well as the Civil Code article which holds owners of things liable for damages caused by a ruin, vice or defect in an object. Starwood removed the matter to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. Both parties retained experts to support their respective positions on the safety of the table’s position in the lobby, and Starwood filed a motion in limine to exclude the guest’s proffered expert witness, Lance S. Roux. 

In his report, Mr. Roux opined that the mirrored coffee table reflected the rug that it sat on, making it difficult to distinguish between the floor and table. Furthermore, “if safety standards, regulations and recommended safety practices for pedestrian walkways had been applied and adhered to,” the injury could have been avoided. To reach this conclusion, he relied on a site inspection, photos and video of the injury, a statement of the guest, and the hotel incident report.

Under the controlling case law, a district court may exclude expert testimony if the subject matter and opinions are matters that a fact-finder can deal with competently based on common sense and knowledge of the world.   Applying this principal to the matter at hand, Judge Barbier held that the incident – tripping over a coffee table – did not present unique issues, and the jury was capable of evaluating the situation based on its common knowledge and experience. He further held that the fact that the table was mirrored did not elevate the situation to “extraordinary.” Since the expert testimony would not assist the fact-finder in understanding the evidence or determining a fact in issue, the Plaintiff’s expert was excluded. 

Take-Away: Before investing in an expert witness, premises owners should take caution to ensure that the contemplated expert opinions involve unique issues that will provide the fact-finder with information he would not otherwise know through his/her own ordinary experience.

This article was co-authored by Josh Christie, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.

Can't Blame It On The Rain

The case Billiot v. Big Wheels Travel Center demonstrates how a plaintiff needs to offer some evidence of a vice or defect in a property in order to survive a motion for summary judgment. Ms. Billiot alleged that she injured her right arm when she slipped and fell on an access ramp while walking into the Big Wheels Travel Center. In response to Ms. Billiot’s claims, Big Wheels filed a motion for summary judgment. In support of the summary judgment motion, Big Wheels submitted photographs depicting the ramp and affidavits of store employees confirming that there was nothing defective about the ramp at the time of the accident. Other than establishing that rain had fallen on the area where she slipped and fell and that the area was wet, Ms. Billiot offered no evidence of any vice or defect in the property. Given this lack of evidence, the trial court granted Big Wheel’s motion for summary judgment and in doing so noted that rain on a walkway in and of itself does not present an unreasonable harm.

Take-Away:  Rain on an access ramp or walkway in and of itself does not constitute a vice or defect. In order to avoid summary dismissal of their case, plaintiffs must come forth with some evidence that there is a problem, vice or defect in the property.