Seasoned Retail Safety Expert Usurps Role Of Trial Judge


Safety Expert

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Bennett v. Target Corp.
Citation: 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189067

In this personal injury case, the plaintiff Sharon Bennett broke her foot after she tripped and fell on a display platform at a Target store. The plaintiff retained a retail architecture and safety expert who opined that Target’s display was defective in design and layout, that the retailer failed to properly inspect the area in question, and that the retailer was negligent in failing to warn customers of the dangers present in the display area.

The defendant, Target made a motion to preclude the expert’s report and testimony, alleging that the expert was not qualified to opine on such issues. Ultimately, although the expert had 40+ years of industry experience and plenty of history as an expert witness, the court ruled to preclude a portion of his testimony on the basis that his conclusions usurped the role of the trial judge in instructing the jury as to the applicable law.

The Retail Architecture and Safety Expert

The plaintiff’s retail architecture and safety expert witness received his degree in Architectural Technology from New York Institute of Technology and has consistently been employed in store design and display capacities. The expert served as CEO of a retail design firm during which time he was responsible for overseeing store and display design and manufacturing coordination, among many other responsibilities. The retail architecture and safety expert had also won various awards over the course of his career for exceptional retail design projects. The expert was no stranger to litigation work either, as he had served as an expert witness in over 150 cases involving retail store architecture and design.

To compile his report, the expert reviewed the Plan-O-Grams provided by the defendant. Based on those Plan-O-Grams, the expert concluded that Target’s layout constituted defective design because the plaintiff’s actions were “reasonable and foreseeable” for a store customer. The expert also concluded that Target failed to warn customers of the potentially hazardous conditions of the area. Finally, the retail architecture and safety expert offered his opinion that the plaintiff’s fall could have been prevented if Target had taken additional safety precautions in their design, and that therefore, the flawed design caused the plaintiff’s fall.

Motion To Preclude

Target argued that the retail architecture and safety expert was not qualified to render the opinions in his report, that his opinions were unreliable, and that they would not assist the trier of fact. Target argued that by saying the flawed design caused the plaintiff’s foot injury, the expert entered into biomechanical, anatomical, and medical issues which he was not qualified to opine on.

The plaintiff countered that the retail architecture and safety expert’s more than 40 years of industry experience in retail design and safety was more than sufficient to qualify him to opine on the case. Furthermore, the plaintiff contended that the expert had thoroughly reviewed all the relevant materials provided the defendant and that his opinions reflected as such.

Court Analysis

The court found that the retail architecture and safety expert was sufficiently qualified in knowledge, skill, and experience to opine on issues relating to retail design and safety. Furthermore, the expert’s report addressed the question of whether Target’s design of the area in question was negligent or defective — the central issue of the case. The court also concluded that the defendant’s suggestions that the expert opined on biomechanical issues was unfounded because the expert’s opinions were within his expertise and industry experience. As such, the expert was qualified to testify regarding what design-related decisions could have prevented or minimized the plaintiff’s injuries.

The court also disagreed with Target’s claim that the expert’s conclusions regarding his review of the Plan-O-Grams were based on mere conjecture. The Plan-O-Grams described by the expert were provided by the defendant in response to a discovery demand seeking design-related materials pertaining to the site of the accident. Thus, the expert’s conclusion that Target deviated from its own standards was deemed reliable.

Court Partially Grants Motion To Preclude The Expert’s Testimony

Target argued that the retail architecture and safety expert witness’ report contained improper legal conclusions, lay opinions, and facts that contradicted record evidence which would not assist the trier of fact. The court agreed with Target referencing the expert’s opinion that:

  • “Target was negligent in creating a nuisance, hazard, trap, defective design, dangerous condition and/or defective display and failing to warn customers of an impending hazard.”
  • “The subject display was defectively designed.”
  • “Target’s negligent decisions in this regard proximately caused the plaintiff to fall and sustain injuries.”

The court found that these conclusions usurped the role of the trial judge in instructing the jury as to the applicable law and the role of the jury in applying that law to the facts before it. Hence, this portion of the expert’s testimony was deemed inadmissible.

What We Can Learn From This Case

  1. No matter how much industry experience experts have, they should stick to factual assertions and conclusions founded in their industry experience which can assist the trier of fact in evaluating the central issue in this case.
  2. Experts should always be careful not to overstep in any aspect of their conclusions.

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