Davis v. Brickman Landscaping – Fire Death Negligence Standard of Proof High

The death of two children in a horrific hotel fire sparked a civil lawsuit brought by their parents, after they learned a storage closet beneath the stairwell lacked a fire sprinkler, as is required under state fire codes.
Our Spartanburg wrongful death attorneys know in negligence actions where municipal building and fire codes may have been breached, the attorney handling the case must have extensive experience. Statutes regarding these matters can be convoluted, and when it’s alleged someone died as a result of a violation, there is a lot at stake.

In Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Ltd., the primary question before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether plaintiff’s expert witness testimony was adequate in showing the defendant, a private company that employed fire sprinkler inspectors, breached the applicable standard of care in carrying out its duties. Because of the complexity of state and local fire codes, an expert witness was required in the case, and the one produced by plaintiff reportedly failed to adequately attest to the alleged breach of industry standards. Therefore, dismissal of the claim was upheld.

That doesn’t mean the company wasn’t negligent, but rather the plaintiffs failed to produce enough evidence to prove so in the preliminary stages of the case.

In most cases of simple negligence, expert witnesses aren’t required because it’s generally understood that a lay person can understand the basic facts surrounding a claim. However, in cases that assert medical malpractice, most courts require an expert witness to establish an applicable breach of the standard of care. New Jersey courts are applying the same kind of standard to fire inspectors.

According to court records, plaintiffs were residing in a second-story suite at a hotel, which had a storage closet lacking a fire sprinkler underneath a staircase leading to that second floor. The defendants each were required to perform sprinkler inspections at the hotel, but reportedly failed to inform the owner those closets were in need of a fire sprinkler.

Subsequently, a fire broke out. The mother/plaintiff was seriously injured. Her two children died in the blaze. She and her husband sued the inspectors.

In pretrial proceedings, plaintiffs presented an expert witness who testified that technically, the National Fire Protection Association did not require inspectors to identify or report the need for additional sprinklers, but who asserted they failed to exercise reasonable care in failing to do so. “Reasonable care,” the plaintiff expert opined, meant the inspectors had a duty to go above and beyond the basic requirements set forth by the NFPA.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting plaintiffs failed to prove defendants violated the applicable standard of care. Trial court granted.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that compliance with NFPA standards did not, as a matter of law, prevent a finding of negligence. The court agreed, but held in this instance, an expert has to provide something more than merely an opinion. Here, the expert’s assertion that the inspectors were required to act beyond the NFPA standards to have exercised reasonable care was not objectively supported.

Contact the South Carolina wrongful death lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Ltd., Sept. 15, 2014, New Jersey Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Ainsworth v. Chandler: On Third Party Interveners in Premises Liability Cases, Sept. 15, 2014, Spartanburg Injury Lawyer Blog

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