District Court Abuses Its Discretion By Excluding Premises Security Expert Testimony In College Sexual Assault Litigation


Security Expert

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Lees v. Carthage College
Citation: 714 F.3d 516

This case involves a sexual assault which took place at Carthage College in 2008. The plaintiff, Katherine Lees, alleged she was “stranger raped” in her dorm, Tarble Hall, by two Carthage students and subsequently brought a negligence action against the college.

Lees retained a premises-security expert to testify to the standard of care for campus safety that Carthage should have met. The expert’s opinion was initially excluded after being deemed unreliable for turning to the IACLEA’s (International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators) guidelines as “the standard of care” for campus security. However, on appeal, it was determined that the court had abused its discretion in excluding this part of security expert’s testimony, but not all of the expert’s testimony.

The Expert

The plaintiff’s expert held several degrees in educational sociology, was widely published in the criminology and security administration and was trained in premises security.

In order to form his opinion, the expert reviewed witness statements, inspected the security conditions at Tarble Hall, reviewed the college’s security protocols, reviewed statistics and police reports concerning sexual assault on campus, and surveyed professional literature on sexual assault and campus security practices. The expert also compared Carthage’s practices with those recommended by the IACLEA (International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators) guidelines, an authoritative set of recommended practices specific to the field of campus security and regularly consulted by campus-security professionals.

Based on his comprehensive investigation, the expert “identified the standard of care for college premises security”. The expert opined that there was a history of sexual assault at the school, that there were numerous security deficiencies at Lees’s residence hall, and that Carthage fell short of recommended campus security practices. The expert further opined that Carthage should have installed alarms and security cameras at Tarble Hall, that the lobby should have been staffed during the overnight hours,  and that visitors should have been escorted to dorm rooms.

Court’s Discussion

Carthage moved to exclude the security expert’s testimony under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and also moved for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff had failed to present reliable expert evidence establishing “the relevant standard of care.”

Although the parties and the court agreed the expert was qualified to provide expert testimony on premises security, the court had rejected the expert’s testimony on reliability grounds, reflecting an implicit application of the analysis required under rule 702.

Appeal

Lees appealed against the judgment of the district court, claiming the district court improperly excluded the security expert’s testimony. The court then had to determine whether the expert’s methodology was reliable enough to uphold his conclusions. According to the standards set forth by Rule 702, the expert’s approach was both ‘technical’ and ‘specialized’. However, the district court criticized the expert’s methodology because he:

  1. Relied on “aspirational” industry guidelines (from the IACLEA)
  2. Failed to distinguish “acquaintance rape” from “stranger rape”

Court’s Discussion

It was argued that the IACLEA’s standards do not establish a standard of care, as they are not considered a formal industry standard. But for admissibility purposes, the relevant question was whether consulting these guidelines was a methodologically sound expert approach. For a claim of this nature, the court found the expert’s testimony about the insecure door, specifically, the absence of a prop alarm to be directly relevant to the case.

Although Carthage argued that the IACLEA guidelines were advisory and overly general, these arguments went to the weight of the expert’s testimony, not its admissibility. Therefore, it was determined that the district court abused its discretion in excluding this part of security expert’s testimony.

The district court did not abuse its discretion, however, in criticizing the expert’s failure to distinguish between “acquaintance rape” and “stranger rape” when evaluating prior instances of sexual assault at Carthage. Carthage’s history of sexual assault informed the expert’s opinion as to what specific security measures would have been reasonable under the circumstances. The district court observed, however, that all the past instances of rape at Carthage were labeled “acquaintance rape”, while the assault on Lees was “stranger rape”. Relying on crime statistics without accounting for this distinction does not constitute the application of reliable principles to the facts of this case. Therefore, the district court properly excluded this aspect of the proposed expert testimony.

Held

The expert’s testimony that relied on IACLEA security standards was deemed admissible, as was his testimony regarding the lack of alarms in the dorm. The value of the security expert’s report was the determination that Carthage deviated from the required standard of care for security on college campuses. Accordingly, the summary judgment in favor of Carthage College was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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