Tag: expert witnesses

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Cancer Verdict Overturned: Trial Court did not follow Daubert Expert Witness Standard

$117 million talcum powder Mesothelioma verdict overturned by failure of the trial court to follow their gate-keeping role.

In an article today from Husch Blackwell, they highlight a case in which a significant verdict for the plaintiffs was recently overturned by the appellate court for failures to conduct a proper Daubert analysis.

As most of our members are aware, a “Daubert hearing” or “Daubert review” is the standard used by the trial court for admitting expert witness testimony. It is the federal standard for admitting expert witness testimony, but the standard has been adopted by a majority of US states.

For your brief review, I’ve decided to add the elements of the Daubert test below, from Cornell Law School:

  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.

There have been a wide variety of mesothelioma lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of baby powder products. Generally speaking, the issue arises from long-term talcum powder use allegedly exposing plaintiffs to asbestos in the talcum powder which causes mesothelioma.

In my 11 years in the expert witness field, there have only been a couple toxic tort matters where the science has been as fiercely contested as it is in the talcum powder cases. The only other cases in recent memory where the science is hotly debated involves lymphoma resulting from the herbicide Round-Up. The Round-Up lawsuits resulted in an $11B settlement between plaintiffs and defendants.

This talcum powder case out of New Jersey, was very similar to the other talcum powder cases. The plaintiffs, Stephen Lanzo III and his wife sued a variety of defendants including one Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, claiming Mr. Lanzo’s long-term use of baby powder caused him to contract mesothelioma.

The trial judge permitted testimony from two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. James S. Webber, Ph.D. and Jacqueline Moline, M.D. On appeal, the 3-judge panel overturned the verdict because they didn’t think the trial court applied a proper Daubert standard in permitting the testimony from doctors Webber and Moline.

According to the article from Husch Blackwell attorney Brittany Lomax, the appellate court basically found that three prongs of the Daubert test were not met, “Namely, the opinions and theories were not tested, not subject to peer review and publication, and were not generally accepted in the scientific community. The panel further held that the trial court did not perform ‘its required gatekeeping function’ by failing to conduct a proper analysis to determine whether the expert opinions met the Daubert standards and failing to assess the methodology or the underlying data used by the two experts to form their opinions.”

As a result, the appellate court remanded to the trial court and ordered new trials for two of the defendants.

It is worth noting, this is a major win for defendants in these talcum powder cases. It appears the appeals courts, at least in New Jersey, are going to review scientific evidence with exceptional rigor.

ElectronicsExpert WitnessLitigation

Apple v. Epic Games Trial: What You Need To Know

Introduction

Technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google face legal battles yearly. Recently, another behemoth has followed suit (pun intended). On August 13th, 2020, Apple found itself involved in an antitrust lawsuit against Fortnite video game creator, Epic Games. The trial began on May 3rd, 2021 and is ongoing, so this blog post will not have all the answers. As it unfolds, this post will delve into the perspectives of both businesses, describe the nature of the trial, introduce opening statements from the first day of the trial, and explain possible outcomes for both Epic Games and Apple.

Epic Games

Epic Games has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple Inc. in response to the removal of its most popular game, Fortnite, from the iPhone App Store. This prohibited 116 million of its 350 million users from updating the game and new consumers from downloading the app (this does not affect the remaining players using other smartphones or gaming consoles). Fortnite’s eradication from iOS App Stores has caused players from around the world to unite in a social media campaign called #FreeFortnite. Epic Games accused the tech giant of monopolizing purchasing options for apps by restricting other methods of conducting transactions. Due to Apple’s renowned international success, Epic Games has filed lawsuits against Apple in Australian, United Kingdom, and European courts. Epic Games not only wants Fortnite back on the iOS App Store, but it also wants to launch a rival App Store on all Apple devices so users can purchase Epic Games products through non-Apple means.

Apple

The catalyst for Fortnite’s removal from Apple’s App Store was the release of a new update by Epic Games which included the implementation of an in-game purchasing currency called “V-Bucks.” This currency allows players to buy items through non-App Store channels. Users who purchase Fortnite items such as outfits, pickaxes, and the latest season’s Battle Pass get to enjoy a 20% discount, which incentivizes players to continue using V-Bucks. Since these purchases are not made through the App Store, V-Bucks circumvents Apple’s chances of receiving its 30% share of any transaction, hence its removal from the App Store and the foundation of #FreeFortnite. In response to Epic Games’ claim of Apple becoming a monopoly, Apple explains the fairness in its decision to remove the game from its App Store. According to Apple, Epic Games violated its agreement by installing V-Bucks without Apple’s permission. If Apple wins the trial, this contract violation could keep Fortnite and all other apps made by Epic Games, or apps run by its game engine, Unreal Engine, from the App Store (The Verge).

The Trial

The trial began on Monday, May 3rd, 2021 in federal court in Oakland, California. This proceeding is a bench trial; thus, the judge will be making the final ruling with no jury. The trial will be held in person and the press and public are prohibited from entering the courtroom. The presiding judge for the United States trial is Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Pending trial, she declined Epic Games’ request for Apple to host Fortnite on iOS devices. Trial dates for the international lawsuits against Apple are unknown. However, Epic Games has recently filed lawsuits in November 2020 (Australia), January 2021 (United Kingdom), and February 2021 (Europe).

Opening Statements and Trial Arguments (photo credits from The Verge)

In its opening statement, Epic Games compares Apple’s restrictive policies to a “Walled Garden.” Its argument is based on the unfairness of Apple’s control over purchasing options. Two expert witnesses testified on behalf of Epic Games. University of Chicago economist, Dr. David Evans, told the court, “Apple’s rules unfairly prevent developers from letting consumers know if their prices for in-app purchases take into account the iPhone maker’s 30% commission or that consumers may be able to get better deals elsewhere,” (Wall Street Journal). To add, Susan Athey, an Economics of Technology professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, explained Apple’s stronghold over consumers is due to their prohibitive iOS mobile operating system. In the case of this trial, if a consumer wanted to access Fortnite an iPhone, the user would need to switch to a different smartphone brand and repurchase all the apps originally purchased from iOS devices. Since the internet is needed to play Fortnite, Evans highlights how gaming consoles could never replace smartphones, as it lacks cellular data for users who want to play the game from anywhere.

Apple’s opening statement was a defensive response to Epic Games’ claims. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple hired University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor, Lorin Hitt, to discuss in-app purchases. Hitt claims, “anticompetitive measures tend to result in reduced quality, yet that hasn’t happened with iPhone and iPads apps, as developers have seen their revenue increase over time.” Essentially, consumers notice the value in the offers proposed by Apple. As noted by the graph below, Mr. Hitt also denounced Epic Games’ claim about Apple’s monopoly-like practices. Users switch devices frequently because people like the products acquired for different reasons. If this were not the case, Play Station and XBOX would not generate over 50% of Fortnite’s revenue for the last two years. This also infers that most Fortnite users are not on iOS devices, which is surprising considering there are 1.5 billion active Apple devices. In addition, Apple insists the iPhone offers multiple avenues for financial transactions. Although difficult to decipher, the second picture provided by Apple indicates that the iPhone, compared to its competitors and subsidiaries, offers three types of digital game transactions options: The App Store, Web Applications, and Purchasing on Other Platforms to play on iOS. Ultimately, Apple is arguing that its practices are not prohibitive nor remotely resemble a “Walled Garden.”

Possible Outcomes

The outcome of the trial between Epic Games and Apple Inc. can end in multiple ways. One hypothetical is the verdict will resume the current situation: users could not access Fortnite on iOS devices, but other games produced by Unreal Engine will remain on Apple’s App Store. If the judge rules in favor of Epic Games, it may be able to create and launch its own App Store on iOS devices.

Legislation

In addition to the trial, a new state bill that recently passed the House 31-29 may negatively impact Apple’s case. According to The Verge, Arizona’s House Bill 2005, “prevents app store operators from forcing a developer based in the state to use a preferred payment system…,” which would ultimately force Apple to provide various payment methods on iOS. This development could be beneficial for Epic Games.


Expert WitnessUncategorized

Fake Police Officer Scam Targeting Expert Witnesses

Mental health professionals are being targeted by a failure to appear scam. The first scam we’ve seen targeting expert witnesses.

This is the first blog post I’ve written that falls directly into the “public service announcement” category. Yesterday morning, I saw an article by the Washington Post where the author describes a telephone-based scam, where perpetrators pretend to be police officers.

The story grabbed my attention because the suspects have a little deeper knowledge about prospective victims. They know enough to know you are likely to act as an expert witness.

The caller, impersonating a police officer, claims the victim failed to appear at a court hearing in which they were subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness. The criminal claims to be an officer and provides the real name of an an officer employed at the local law enforcement agency, which can be confirmed online. The victim is told they have a civil option to pay a fine and avoid jail time.

As recounted in the Washington Post article, “The problem, the alleged detective stressed, was that because of the coronavirus, people couldn’t come into police headquarters to settle such matters. He said she needed to purchase “MoneyPak” electronic cash transfer cards — at one point transferring the call to his purported supervisor, who also had assumed the name of a real Montgomery officer.”

You need to start asking questions at this time! Have them send you some documentation in the mail. Have them personally serve you the paperwork. Do not get frightened by someone claiming to be an authority figure over the phone. That’s their goal! Get you nervous and acting irrationally.

The option to pay a fine should immediately get your attention. Not to mention this silliness of paying with “electronic cash transfer cards.” There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to pay a fine with a check or credit card.

If you are accused of missing are accused of missing a court hearing. You should know that police officers, detectives, investigators, are not usually those responsible for collecting fines. Generally that’s a different department.

Scam Has Been Taking Place for a While:

Although this fake police officer scam targeting mental health professionals, took place in Maryland. However, in preparing to write this post, I did a little research and found that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had also warned about this type of a scam back in 2019. Here is their press release on the subject. The LAPD specifically mentioned therapists and psychologists as more likely to be targeted:

“It should be noted that many of the victims are current/former employees in the mental health industry. In each of these incidents, the caller claimed that the victim missed an appearance as an expert witness in a court case. Therapists and psychologists should particularly beware of the scam. You can get help determining the authenticity of a call by contacting your local police station.”

addiction medicineExpert WitnessPharmaceutical

Landmark Oklahoma Opioid Ruling Due Monday – Expert Witness Recap

The last two years have been a whirlwind for those of us following the litigation response to the opioid crisis. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed throughout the country. Most notably, the National Prescription Opiate Litigation (a multi-district litigation).

So what is happening on next week? Well, one of the first major opioid trials took place in Oklahoma earlier this summer. When I say “opioid trial,” I mean the legal trial, not “clinical trial.” Forgive me, I had to make the joke. The trial took place and the judge is expected to deliver his ruling on Monday. Berkeley Lovelace, Jr., of CNBC, provides an in-depth analysis of the trial here.

The case was brought by the State of Oklahoma against Johnson & Johnson, et al. The Oklahoma attorney general is seeking damages in excess of $17 billion dollars. The state sued Johnson & Johnson claiming their sales and marketing practices fueled the opioid epidemic and created a public nuisance, resulting in approximately 6,000 overdose deaths. Any damages awarded, assuming there is not a settlement before the ruling, would be used for addiction treatment and preventative measures for the next few decades.

We, at Experts.com, have been following pharmaceutical litigation for a long time. In the last two years, we’ve been laser-focused on opioid litigation. We started to pay strict attention to the matter when we realized it was similar in magnitude as the civil lawsuits involving tobacco, in the 1990s. It meant we were going to see significant litigation for years to come.

With a database of expert witnesses, we set out to write multiple articles on the matter, in the form of question-and-answer-style blog posts. In addition, I’ve written a couple of guest blogs on the topic for other legal companies. This blog post is to recap these resources we’ve published over the last two years.

Two Years of Opioid Crisis Publications:

  1. Opioid Crisis – An increase in addiction medicine and pain management expert witnesses – November 6, 2017
  2. Kentucky AG files lawsuit against opioid distributor McKesson – January 22, 2018
  3. Pain and Addiction Expert Witness Comments on 72,000 Opioid Deaths in 2017 – August 22, 2018
  4. Judicial Analytics in California Opioid Litigation – January 23, 2019
  5. Legal and Expert Witness Staffing for Opioid Litigation – June 18, 2019

We Expect More Stories in the Future:

Unfortunately for our country, we expect to be writing about these lawsuits for years to come. What happens next week, may pave the way for more lawsuits and major settlements? We don’t know how it might end, but we’re pretty sure the pharmaceutical companies will end up paying a lot of money. If not in Oklahoma, in other lawsuits still to come.

UPDATE: 08/26/2019

Today, Cleveland County District Court Judge Thad Balkman ruled against Purdue Pharma LLP, Johnson & Johnson and others. He ruled the defendant’s in the first civil opioid trial are responsible for causing a public nuisance, and held them liable for abatement of the nuisance, in the amount of $572+ million.

You can read the verdict here.

Sexual AbuseSports Safety

Olympian Ashley Wagner’s Sexual Assault: Sports Sex Abuse Expert Witness Analysis

Yesterday, Olympian Ashley Wagner came forward with a story of her sexual assault by another figure skater, when she was only 17 years old. We reached out to a sport sexual abuse expert to gain insights.

For many, the Larry Nassar matter was an introduction to the abuse suffered by many of our greatest competitive athletes. In fact, there was a recently released congressional report about the institutional failures relating to Larry Nassar, as reported by CNN.  I, for one, was completely unaware of the potential for abuse in Olympic athletics.

Unlike the Nassar matter, where an Olympic physician was convicted of abusing athletes, Ashley Wagner reported abuse by fellow figure skater, John Coughlin. She was 17 years of age, and Mr. Coughlin (now deceased), was 22 years old at the time of the offense. Ms. Wagner provided a video recording and transcribed statement to USA Today. You can view and read her statement here.

To get a better understanding of the power dynamics and power imbalances described in Ms. Wagner’s statement, I reached out our member Katherine Starr, who is an expert witness in the areas of school and sports-related sexual abuse and harassment. Ms. Starr is also a former Olympian. Please visit her website to learn more about her services and organization Safe4Athletes. Below are my questions and her answers.

NR: Yesterday, Ashley Wagner bravely told a story about a time in which she was sexually assaulted while away at a skating camp. How common are these types of attacks in athletic environments?

KS: Unfortunately, sexual abuse is a very common occurrence in athletics, especially at the elite levels. Training camps and international competition often lack any type of formal education and prevention modalities. The risk of sexual abuse to a minor athlete increases exponentially, as they are now susceptible to sexual abuse from an adult-athlete, program staff members and coaches. There are generally no safeguards in place with minimal resources and structures for an athlete to seek the help and protection they need.

Safe4Athletes did a survey on abuse in sport with a focus on elite athletes, the questions asked were in regard to frequency and duration of abuse, all forms of abuse. We found that abuse was more likely to occur over multi-years and multi-occurrence then a single occurrence of sexual abuse. We also found that over 25 % of the participants in the survey were sexual abused, 80% that responded to having been sexually abused had competed at the international level.

We also found that sexual abuse is common across sport, the level of accomplishment is what makes the athlete vulnerable to being targeted for sexual abuse.

For additional review, a survey can be found on the Safe4Athletes website at www.safe4athletes.org/resources/survey-results.

NR: Ms. Wagner posted a video of her experience and went into great detail. In one part of the video, she discusses the “dynamics of my sport, where uncomfortable power imbalances thrive to this day.” Do sports-related sexual assaults usually involve power imbalances? And, can you expand on these imbalances for our readers?

KS: The power imbalance that Ms. Wagner has shared transpires across all sport and is a direct result of the talent of the athlete. The inherent structure of sport in itself is an imbalance of power. The imbalance of power first becomes exposed when the athlete reaches its “peak age of involvement” in the sport and the imbalance of power continues to widen as the talent reaches the top of its sport.

The power imbalance does not discriminate or change in regard to type of sport, what changes is the peak age of involvement in the sport. For example, gymnastics peak at around 13 and can compete in the Olympics as young as 13 and a typical elite career will last until 20’s. That sport is vulnerable to an abuse of power structure very young were in a sport like cycling the youngest age of Olympic competitor is 18, and last well in to their 30’s. In both instances, athletes are exposed to same abuse of power dynamic.

The imbalance of power and the dynamic develop at all talent levels and environment, often the star of the team is a target abuse. One of the other vulnerable structures is the group of athletes that are good but haven’t reached the great level, they show promise. It is the promise that is always in reach but never obtained.

NR: How can the athletic organizations improve athlete safety?

KS: First and foremost, implement effective policies, which have an external reporting structure.

Athletic departments should not do their own investigations, oversight and training modules. It appears as a conflict of interest. Seek outside help to set up structures that can actually address the power imbalance that is inherent in the system.

Most importantly, the oversight teams of these issues, needs to be educated and trained themselves to be able to understand how the voice of an athlete works.

NR: Often, it seems competitive athletic organizations fail to recognize the dangers. Or, they choose to “sweep it under the rug” when it comes to misbehavior. How should organizations respond to issues of abuse?

KS: As a result of this very issue, all our programs require an “Athlete Welfare Advocate” that is there for the athlete to seek the help they need, when they are ready. If the athlete doesn’t feel comfortable with that option, they always have the choice of speaking with Safe4Athletes directly to obtain the help and resources that they need to respond to the issue.

We customize policies for the sports environment (schools and sports programs), making sure the key ingredients are in place, to allow for an effective program to respond to the inherent abuse of power in the system.

NR: What steps can athletic organizations take to better protect athletes (many of whom are children, as Ashley Wagner was at the time of the incident)?

KS: Invest in athlete safety and protection equally as one would invest in the success of the athlete and the program. Provide the same vigor and fortitude that one puts into the athlete and the program a structure to combat these issues. One cannot have, a truly successful athlete and program without a system to address the inherent dangers that an athlete is susceptible to.

Effective programs understand the needs of “the athlete” coupled with the “level of participation” and are able to adopt and implement those nuances to respond effectively to issues and concerns.


There will be more to come on these matters. For parents with children involved in competitive athletics, please stay informed. Katherine Starr is a great resource!

 

 

Expert WitnessInsuranceWildfires

Camp Fire Disaster Causes Insurance Company Liquidation – Expert Witness

Now that the fire is out, I expected to be done writing about this topic for the year. Alas, there has been another casualty of the fire, it is the Merced Property & Casualty Company.

Insurance companies receive premiums from their customers (policyholders) to insure against property loss, damage and other risks. Some victims of the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, will not have those claims fulfilled by Merced Property & Casualty Company.

According to the LA Times, as of December 3, 2018, a Merced County court, “gave California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones permission to seize and liquidate the company’s assets. Now, the company is in the process of handing over policy and customer information to the California Insurance Guarantee Assn., or CIGA, which processes and pays claims on behalf of insolvent insurers.”

My understanding of the liquidation process is as follows: Merced Property & Casualty Company realizes they are in deep trouble, decide to skip bankruptcy, and ask the court to hand their operation over to the California Insurance Commissioner to clean up their mess. Per the LA Times, they have assets of roughly $23 million, but are expecting to pay out nearly three times that amount.

After policyholders fulfill their duty of paying premiums, they should expect to be insured against covered losses. As is often the case in mass disasters, insurance companies are ill-prepared and lack capital to fulfill their part of the bargain. Luckily for Californians, the taxpayers protect against such insurance company failures.

I reached out to one of our California insurance expert witnesses to get a better understanding of this insurance company liquidation.

Insurance Expert Witness Richard Masters

Richard Masters, CPCU, CIC, ARM, AAI, has more than 40 years of experience in the insurance industry. He is an expert on all aspects of property and casualty insurance and has testified in more than 200 trials in state and federal courts.

If you have a policy with Merced Property & Casualty Company, we hope this helps put your mind at ease. As I commonly do, I asked Mr. Masters several questions about the liquidation and he provided responses.

Nick: What happens when California regulators take over an insurance company?

Mr. Masters: They can either liquidate it or try to rehabilitate it. Rehabilitation usually involves getting another insurer to assume the book of business with the backing and help of CIGA. In the case of Merced I do not think it will be rehabilitated. First, I urge all customers of Merced to contact their insurance broker and immediately get a new insurance policy with a different carrier going forward.

Nick: Merced Property & Casualty Company didn’t even file bankruptcy. They claimed insolvency and are liquidating the company. What happens to the claimants?

Mr. Masters: The claimants will continue to make their claims with Merced and they should also contact CIGA to make a claim for benefits. CIGA can be contacted at 818-844-4300 or assistance@ciga.org. Make sure you have your homeowners or dwelling policy available. If you need to, contact your insurance broker to get copies of your policies.

Nick: There is some information that the California Insurance Guarantee Association. Is this like an FDIC for insurance companies?

Mr. Masters: Yes, that is a reasonable analogy. CIGA has three separate funds that they operate. The Merced collapse would involve the Homeowners Personal Lines fund. A liquidator will be assigned by CIGA and will administer the funds.

Nick: Will the claimants receive fractions of their claims as a result of this regulatory takeover?

Mr. Masters: Generally, CIGA will pay up to $500,000 for each claim but this depends on the terms of the policy and other factors determined by CIGA.

Nick: Any other information to provide to the public about the claims process through CIGA?

Mr. Masters: The claim process through CIGA is cumbersome and takes a LOT more time to complete. Claimants will need a lot of patience when dealing with CIGA.


In related news:

The ABA Journal reported today, “two law firms known for their class action practices have filed a new lawsuit that blames Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the November fire that killed at least 88 people in Northern California and destroyed the town of Paradise.” Seven plaintiffs are jointly represented by The Edelson Law Firm and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

This is just one of several suits blaming PG&E for negligently maintaining equipment which resulted in wildfires. It appears the plaintiffs have hit PG&E with a variety of claims including inverse condemnation, trespass, negligence, nuisance and more. One of the plaintiffs claims to be suffering from PTSD as a result of being stuck in traffic, while trying to flee the fire, and embers from fire-engulfed trees were hitting his car. He feared he “would be burned alive.” I might be suffering serious emotional distress as well.

Let us not forget, PG&E has already publicly stated that they may have to declare bankruptcy if it is determined they were responsible for the Camp Fire.


This is the last I will be writing about the Camp Fire for this year. However, given the continuing legal implications of this catastrophe, I expect issues of import will develop in the New Year.

EvidenceExpert WitnessExpert Witness Testimony

Expert Witness Liability, According to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals

Recently, we have received some questions from expert witnesses regarding potential liability for expert witness testimony. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided this issue last Friday.

Last week, on October 26th, 2018, the United States, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal common law “witness litigation privilege” protects an expert witness for civil claims stemming from their testimony.

The best summary of the decision that I found comes from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP’s, Gravel2Gavel Blog. You can find the blog post here.

The matter involved a coal miner who was claiming benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. According to the expert witness the evidence did not support the plaintiff’s claim and the claim was denied. Thereafter, a report from the Center for Public Integrity alleged the “Johns Hopkins radiology unit and its expert witnesses were much less likely to find evidence of black lung disease than other doctors.”

The report from the Center for Public Integrity led to a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins and their doctors claiming liability for fraud, tortious interference, misrepresentation and more. The trial court dismissed the claim citing the federal common law “witness litigation privilege.” According to Gravel2Gavel, the appeals court was divided on the issue, but agreed with the trial court decision.

The Fourth Circuit stated “absolute immunity” applies to the expert witness testimony. They went further to state, “‘when a witness takes the oath, submitting his own testimony to cross-examination, the common law does not allow his participation to be deterred or undermined by subsequent collateral actions for damages.’” This is a really wordy way for the court to say an expert witness cannot later be sued for their testimony.

We also went ahead and summarized the ruling in this video:

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.

EngineeringExpert WitnessWeather

Hurricane Floodwater & Wastewater: Sanitary Engineer Expert Witness Analysis

Five days after Hurricane Florence made landfall and pounded parts of the East Coast with winds and torrential rains, many areas are still inundated with flood water.

The floods have been devastating. Not only are the waters causing extreme property damage and personal injuries (in some instances death), they are also carrying contaminants and pollutants which have severe public health concerns.

Yesterday I read about some of the pollutants entering the floodwaters. Some of the items include: dead animals (turkeys, pigs, chickens), chemicals, manure, and untreated raw sewage. In fact, Bloomberg reported farm lagoons (storing feces and urine) had given way and sewer treatment plants have been overwhelmed by the rains.

Specifically, there are a variety of issues caused by these contaminants being washed away and transported via floodwaters. Bloomberg points out some of these concerns:

“Hog waste contains E. coli and bacteria, Rumpler said. Sewage overflows, combined with high floodwaters, bring the prospect of ecological impacts including fish kills. Humans coming into contact with fecal matter risk viruses, parasitic infections and rashes.”

So, there are some things our citizen brothers and sisters should avoid in North Carolina. Try to avoid swimming and wading through floodwaters. Remember the water is NOT just rain water. It is NOT clean. Those floodwaters include wastewater. Citizens should probably continue drinking bottled water until local authorities tell them otherwise.

That is enough of my non-expert suggestions. I’ve reached out to a sanitary engineering expert witness for some insights.

Sanitary Engineering Expert Witness Bonneau Dickson

Bonneau Dickson, PE, is a Sanitary Engineer with over 35 years of experience in all aspects of studying, designing, and constructing water, wastewater, and stormwater facilities, both in the United States and abroad. Mr. Dickson has designed approximately 300 water, wastewater, and stormwater projects. Has been resident engineer or otherwise participated in the construction phase of approximately 20 water and wastewater projects. Mr. Dickson has both project management and general management experience as project manager on approximately 175 projects.  You can learn more about his practice here: bonneaudickson.com.

Nick: With the post-Hurricane Florence flooding, we are reading about heavily polluted waters (pig excrement and raw sewage). What can North Carolina authorities do to address these sewage overflows and treat the wastewater?

Mr. Dickson: Very little. The pollution has escaped and there are few or no practical means of recapturing it.

The good news is that the torrential rains are likely to flush most of the pollution out to sea where it will decompose and be diluted down to insignificant concentrations.

Nick: At least one municipal sewer authority experienced catastrophic failure. Is there anything that can be done to limit or prevent such catastrophic failures when faced with heavy rains and severe flooding?

Mr. Dickson: Proper design of wastewater treatment facilities includes protection against flooding up to some level. Often, the protection includes levees and stormwater pumping facilities to prevent the wastewater treatment facilities from flooding.

The design storm often is a 100-year storm. I have not seen an analysis of the return period for a storm like Hurricane Florence but it could be on the order of a 500-year storm or a 1,000-year storm. Some areas were reported to have received up to 40-inches of rain in a few days. Typical annual rainfall in the Carolina’s is approximately 40-inches.

Nick: What are the major public health risks associated with untreated wastewater flooding parts of North Carolina?

Mr. Dickson: Probably diarrheal diseases from drinking or coming in contact with polluted water.

Nick: What can individuals and authorities do to limit public health risks associated with wastewater?

Mr. Dickson: Get the potable water systems operating again so people have clean water to drink and bathe in.


 

Until the floodwaters recede, please be safe. Listen to local authorities and remember to help your neighbors!