Month: October 2018

Accident Investigation & ReconstructionEngineeringEvidence

Clemson University Floor Collapse and the Eventual Expert Witnesses

What kinds of expert witnesses can we expect to participate in future litigation related to the floor collapse at The Woodlands of Clemson apartment complex?

Early Sunday morning, at a fraternity party in Clemson, SC, a dance floor at an apartment clubhouse became the scene of a serious accident combined with multiple personal injuries. Luckily for all involved, the injuries were not life-threatening.

There were several videos of the accident. One came from Twitter user @PJG116 and another video post in a response by Twitter user @StevieW21 (still shot above also from the video), which provides us some interesting evidence to analyze in order to anticipate the potential legal issues which may necessitate expert witness opinions in future litigation. Here is the video from @PJG116

The video, according to Twitter, has been viewed more than 8 million times at the time of this writing. As an aside, the video seems to have been recorded using Snapchat and then uploaded to Twitter. It is an excellent piece of recorded evidence for our purposes.

The video provides us with a significant number of issues to consider, so I have limited my analysis. To my lawyer-friends, I’m certain you will identify issues I have missed. Please feel free to discuss those in the comments.

Premises Liability:

As this took place at an apartment complex, we are instantly interested in topics of premises liability (i.e. liability to the landowner/manager when an injury occurs on their property). In this case, we would need to determine if there was any negligence on behalf of the apartment complex.

It would be important to look at the use of this clubhouse in the past. Was it often used for college parties? Was it foreseeable a fraternity would have a dance party? Was it foreseeable a dance party would include jumping up and down? Certainly, I think the answer to all of these is yes, all were foreseeable.

There are defenses to premises liability. Common defenses include assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and comparative negligence. Was the apartment complex informed about the number of party-goers? Did the event planner (who was likely a tenant) provide the appropriate information about the size of the party? Did the party exceed the occupancy capacity of the clubhouse? There may be negligence on behalf of the event planner (i.e. fraternity) which may have contributed to the accident. Certainly, the apartment complex will be arguing they were not at fault.

When premises liability causes of action are involved, it is not uncommon to involve a premises liability expert witness to opine on whether one or more parties met their standard of care. In this case, I anticipate it’ll be an expert with apartment property management experience.

Does the school or fraternity have any liability?

Early news reports indicated this was an off-campus event promoted by a fraternity. However, since those early reports, we have discovered the school was reviewing security camera footage. So there are some questions about whether the school is responsible for the apartment complex. Otherwise, I’m not certain how they got access to review the security footage.

Additionally, the fraternity may have rented the clubhouse for the event? Or, a fraternity member who lived at the apartment complex may have had access as a result of being a tenant. Fraternities generally have to hold liability insurance. It may turn into a dispute between the school and the fraternity as to who is responsible for the accident. Did the fraternity sign a release of liability to use the space? Did they misrepresent the intended use? Any misrepresentation may help relieve the apartment complex or school from their potential negligence.

Structural Integrity, Failure Analysis & Construction Materials:

One of the evidentiary matters likely to arise in a premises liability action is the durability, construction and intended use of the damaged part of the clubhouse.

In this Associated Press brief we are told “Clemson planning and code director Todd Steadman said there was an occupancy limit of 135 people for the upstairs portion of the clubhouse that collapsed. He says the school is reviewing security video to determine how many people were on the floor when it failed.”

There are a couple of interesting aspects to the above quote. We immediately know people are looking into the building codes and occupancy issues. If the upper portion of the clubhouse met the codes, that is helpful to the apartment complex that they met their standard of care for a safely constructed building.

In a future litigation over personal injuries stemming from this accident, I see structural engineers being brought in to analyze the construction, applicable building code sections, and cause of the failure. Knowing what caused the floor collapse and how it may have prevented will play a role in assigning liability.

Now, I’m not a structural engineer, but one thing I do know, is that vibrations can impact the stability of a platform. If you have 40 or 50 people jumping in unison, the combined impact and vibration are going to have a more significant impact than 135 people walking around.

Also, there will need to be some inspections of the collapsed material. Was there rot in the wood? Was there a termite infestation? Were there any other issues with the building materials? Did the apartment complex know, or should they have known, about any substandard materials used to construct the floor?

If the complex finds there is something off about the construction of the floor or if the materials used didn’t meet code standards, they may be able to bring the builder in as a co-defendant.

So there you have it. I see the following as potential experts in future litigation:

  • Premises liability / property management expert
  • Structural engineering or failure analysis expert
  • Construction, building codes, and construction materials expert

I know, this sounds like a lot of experts. There may be one expert capable of analyzing several of the issues outlined above.

As usual, this is a brief analysis. Premises liability being the glaring cause of action in this case. For those lawyers who will inevitably read and decide I missed an important issue… I agree. This was not intended to be a full and complete analysis of causes of action. Please comment below!

 

 

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Florida Supreme Court Says ‘No’ to Daubert Expert Witness Standard

Since 2013, Florida has been the center of a battle over admissibility standards for expert witness testimony.

Prior to a move by the legislature in 2013, Florida followed the Frye Standard (i.e. general acceptance test). This test is considered a more lenient in allowing for expert witness testimony.

Normally, this standard is preferred by plaintiff’s counsel and disliked by defense counsel. Much like the “general acceptance test,” my last statement is a generalization.

In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a law changing the admissibility standard from Frye, to the federal standard commonly referred to as Daubert StandardRather than the general acceptance test, the judge as the gatekeeper, would apply a multi-pronged test to analyze the admissibility of expert evidence. Here are the prongs per Cornell Law:

  1. whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested;
  2. whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
  3. its known or potential error rate;
  4. the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation;
  5. whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Most of our members are familiar with the Daubert Standard because it is the standard used by federal courts and more than three-quarters of US states. Naturally, my home state of California still uses Frye because we always want to do things a little differently. Well, according to the Florida Supreme Court ruling this week, Florida likes to do things differently as well.

To summarize, the Florida Supreme Court found the law implementing the Daubert Standard to be an unconstitutional infringement on the court’s authority by the legislature.

The decision was covered by CBS Miami, and the most pertinent part is as follows:

“We recognize that Frye and Daubert are competing methods for a trial judge to determine the reliability of expert testimony before allowing it to be admitted into evidence,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote in the majority decision, joined by justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga. “Both purport to provide a trial judge with the tools necessary to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented to the jury. Frye relies on the scientific community to determine reliability whereas Daubert relies on the scientific savvy of trial judges to determine the significance of the methodology used. With our decision today, we reaffirm that Frye, not Daubert, is the appropriate test in Florida courts.”

It was a 4-3 decision by the Florida Supreme Court and the Chief Justice offered an impassioned dissent. For our members practicing in Florida, the law is clear, the Supreme Court has decided Frye is the appropriate standard for Florida.