Hotel Premises Liability Case Prompts Debate Over Industry Maintenance Standards


Restaurant Expert

Court: United States District Court for the District of Colorado
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Jorgensen v. Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. LLC
Citation: 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124659

Facts

In this premises liability case against the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Denver, Colorado, the plaintiff sustained serious injuries to her back, neck, and lower left leg after slipping and falling on a puddle of water in the hotel’s restaurant. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant hotel was negligent in permitting water to accumulate on the floor, and presented an expert in hotel management to discuss the standards for maintenance, plumbing, and engineering in the hospitality industry.

The Expert

The plaintiff’s hotel management expert held a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration, a master’s degree in food service management, and a PhD in organizational behavior. He had also been employed in the hospitality industry for 30+ years and had held positions including manager, restaurant director, owner/operator, board member, and consultant.

The expert testified that an obstruction in the main collection line caused to the drain clog that led to the plaintiff’s fall. The expert also informed the jury that the drain backup, which resulted in water accumulation, was not in suitable condition for the restaurant. In his report, the expert mentioned that the policies of the defendant were on par with the hotel and restaurant industry standard. However, he claimed that there was negligence on the part of the hotel’s employees. According to the expert, the defendant’s employees failed to take proper care of the drain, resulting in the accident

The defendant filed motions to exclude the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert. According to the defendant, the hotel management expert’s report was unreliable because he failed to produce any objective principles or methodology. The defendant also contended that the expert’s testimony was of no help to the jury in understanding the facts, as his opinions misstated the legal standard and might confuse the jury.

Court’s Discussions

The court agreed that the hotel management expert was sufficiently qualified in hotel and restaurant operations. The plaintiff argued that the expert’s opinion was in line with the policies of the defendant’s restaurant and his employees failed in complying with the same. The plaintiff also argued that compliance with the defendant’s policies was a complex matter, and hence an expert testimony is needed to assist the jury.

At first, the court did not believe the expert’s testimony regarding a water clog being a dangerous situation was helpful to the jury. The argument was presented that jurors have a general knowledge of clogged drains from using restaurants etc., and thus would understand if a water clog was dangerous or not to the customers. Hence, the expert was not allowed to testify about the defendant’s failure to provide the plaintiff  “an environment free from dangers that resulted in injury.” However, the court eventually found that the clogged drain was a dangerous condition, and hence the expert was authorized to testify as an expert in this case.

The expert stated that the defendant’s policies for managing drain backups were on par with industry standards, but that his employees failed to comply with these standards. Accordingly, the court was not persuaded by the defendant’s reliance on Hatfield v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., where the Tenth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of expert testimony, because the expert did not offer an industry standard for the placement of floor mats.

The court found that the expert’s opinions and experience regarding the cause of drain backup and the precautions the defendant should have taken to avoid this incident might be useful to the jury. In addition, the expert discussed how to properly use hotel maintenance department communication systems, as this was out of scope of jurors knowledge and could help the jury understand the evidence and determine the facts at issue.

Held

In totality, the court held that, with the exception of his opinions regarding the existence of a dangerous condition, the expert was permitted to testify as an expert in this case. Accordingly, the court granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion to exclude the hotel management expert’s testimony.

The court found that the hotel management expert’s opinions were reliable and relevant.  The expert’s opinion was directly based on his 30+ years of industry experience. While discussing proper maintenance standards, the expert referred to his own case where he operated his own restaurant in New York City and he never had to call a plumber, because he followed proper maintenance standards. By explaining that managing a small restaurant gave him knowledge of the troubleshooting required for plumbing issues, the expert revealed why his experience was a sufficient basis for his opinions.

However, the court found that the expert could have provided more detail on specific experiences that led him to his conclusions. Furthermore, he could have stated industry standards other than those embodied in the defendant’s policies, this would have made his opinion more reliable.

What We Can Learn From This Case

For cases in which an expert does not rely on testing or data, and the expert’s opinion is  primarily based on experience, then the witness must explain how that experience leads to the conclusion reached, why that experience is a sufficient basis for the opinion, and how that experience can be reliably applied to the facts.

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