Recognized in Automatic Door Case

The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that a plaintiff is entitled to a res ipsa instruction in an case in which an automatic door unexpectantly closed and caused injury. Because of that determination, the plaintiff was entitled to get by a summary judgment motion and have a jury decide the case.

More precisely, the Court put the issue this way: “whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits a jury to infer, based on common knowledge, that a supermarket’s automatic doors ordinarily do not malfunction and close on a customer unless negligently maintained by the store owner, or whether the res ipsa inference is preconditioned on expert testimony first explaining the door’s mechanics.”

The case arose from a malpractice action against an attorney who filed a premises suit on behalf of the plaintiff but allowed the case to be dismissed because of a failure to respond to discovery requests. When the plaintiff discovered the dismissal, she sued her attorney.

The attorney argued that plaintiff could not prove the automatic door that closed on her unexpectantly was defective. In other words, the defendant maintained that plaintiff could not prove “the case within the case.”

The Court said that “[e]quitable principles suggest that a business that invites a plaintiff onto its property for financial gain and that has exclusive control of an automatic door and superior knowledge about its maintenance should give an account of what went wrong. An automatic door may be a sophisticated piece of machinery, but it probably does not close on an innocent patron unless the premises’ owner negligently maintained it. That conclusion can be reached without resort to expert testimony. If someone other than the premises’ owner is at fault, the owner is in the best position to demonstrate that fact.”

On the issue of whether the plaintiffs had to call an expert to be entitled to proceed on a res ipsa theory. The Court held that an expert was unnecessary. “An automatic door may be a highly sophisticated piece of machinery, but it probably does not close on an innocent patron causing injury unless the premises’ owner negligently maintained it. That conclusion can be reached based on common knowledge without resort to expert testimony. A jury does not need an expert to tell it what it already knows. If the premises’ owner, who has exclusive control over the automatic door, has proof that he is not to blame and that another is at fault, he must come forward to rebut the inference. For example, the owner is in the better position to say whether the malfunction was the result of improper inspection or a product defect for which others should be answerable.” [Emphasis supplied.] The Court when on to say that “[o]nly when the res ipsa inference falls outside of the common knowledge of the factfinder and depends on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is expert testimony required.”

This decision is a great read. Click here to read it in its entirety.