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NJ: Expert witness not needed to prove res ipsa

Jerista v. Murray, 185 N.J. 175 (2005)

NJ: Underlying personal injury

Student Contributor: Rachel Vincent

Facts: Plaintiffs are suing attorney for legal malpractice alleging that attorney negligently failed to prosecute their person injury lawsuit against super market. In August 1987, plaintiffs were severely injured by a revolving door while exiting a supermarket. Plaintiffs hired defendant to represent them. However, defendant failed to respond to discovery requests, which ultimately led to the dismissal of the complaint. Over the course of nine years, defendant never informed plaintiffs that case was dismissed, which resulted in a loss of evidence necessary to prosecute the malpractice case against him.
Defendant filed for summary judgment claiming that plaintiffs failed to present expert testimony explaining what went wrong with the supermarket’s automatic door. Plaintiffs argue that they did not retain an expert regarding the malfunctioning doors because of the lack of available evidence. Lower court granted summary defendant to attorney and plaintiff appealed.

1. Whether res ipsa loquitur is preconditioned on expert testimony first explaining the door’s mechanics?

2. Whether clients are entitled to spoliation of evidence inference if attorney misled them about the status of their underlying case?

1. No. Client was entitled to inference of negligence under doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, without providing expert testimony about operation of automatic doors.
“Only when the res ipsa loquitur inference falls outside of the common knowledge of the fact finder and depends on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is expert testimony required.”

2. Yes. Assuming that attorney misled clients about true status of their underlying personal injury lawsuit, clients would be entitled to spoliation of evidence inference. “If plaintiffs can make a threshold showing hat defendant’s recklessness caused the loss or destruction of relevant evidence in the underlying personal injury lawsuit, the jury should be instructed that it may infer the missing evidence would have been helpful to plaintiffs’ case and inured to defendant’s detriment.”

Lesson: The lesson here is two-fold. First, an inference of res ipsa loquitur is warranted so long as the negligence falls within the jury’s common knowledge. Second, an inference of spoliation is warranted if an attorney consistently misled his client’s about the status of their case, causing essential evidence needed to prove the underlying claim  to be lost.  

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Posted in: New Jersey