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Why Experts Are Critical In Premises Liability Cases

Why is expert testimony critical in premises liability cases? Because, as a recent Georgia appellate court decision illustrates, a plaintiff must ultimately prove the existence of a defective condition, and an expert testimony is frequently required in order to do so. Hayes v. SNS P’ship, LP, A13A1698 (Ga. Ct. App. March 27, 2014).

In Hayes, the plaintiff sued the owners of a Steak N Shake restaurant for injuries she sustained when a door closed on her shoe, causing her to fall.  The plaintiff alleged that the door was too heavy and closed too quickly, causing the accident.   The plaintiff presented no evidence in support of this theory, however, other than her own lay opinion. The trial court granted summary judgment to the restaurant based upon the plaintiff’s failure to present evidence of an actual defective condition. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed.

The appellate court began its analysis by noting that, in a premises case, “the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had superior knowledge of a dangerous condition that was unknown to the plaintiff and that caused plaintiff’s injuries. Without evidence of the existence of a dangerous condition, there can be no evidence that the defendant had any knowledge of the danger, and therefore no recovery for the plaintiff.” Because, in Hayes, the plaintiff presented no evidence that the door was objectively defective (e.g., evidence that the door was broken or somehow non-compliant with building or safety codes), the court found the plaintiff’s claim was unsustainably speculative. It held that the plaintiff’s lay opinions regarding the weight of the door and the speed at which it closed “[fell] short of providing evidence of a defect in the door . . . and [did] not create any issue of fact which would preclude summary judgment.”

This decision broke no new legal ground. As the Hayes court pointed out, Georgia courts regularly bounce premises liability cases when the plaintiff fails to present concrete evidence of a defective condition. Rather, Hayes illustrates the need for plaintiffs to associate expert witnesses who can point out objective defects, such as design defects, code violations, or the like, in order for their claims to survive summary judgment. In most cases, a plaintiff’s subjective beliefs or opinions just won’t cut it.

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