Connecticut Panel Finds Mechanical Engineering Expert Witness Properly Barred


Mechanical Engineering Expert WitnessCase:

Frank Czajkowski, et al. v. YMCA of Metropolitan Hartford, Inc., No. 35085, Appellate Court of Connecticut; April 15, 2014

Background:

Plaintiff Lisa Czajkowski, on behalf her minor son, Frank, sued YMCA of Metropolitan Hartford, Inc., alleging negligence as a result of a dangerous fence. In 2005, when Frank was 14, he attended an overnight camp owned by the defendant. Outside the dining hall after lunch, Frank was standing in an area enclosed by a split-rail fence. When it was time to depart for the next activity, some students walked around the fence. Others, including Frank, jumped over it. He did not clear the top rail, fell, and struck his head on the ground.

A jury in the Superior Court, Judicial District of Ansonia–Milford returned a verdict for the YMCA.

Engineering Expert Witness:

The plaintiff’s engineering expert witness, Anthony Storace, has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He was also experienced in accident investigation and reconstruction. Storace said the fence was apparently provided to prevent pedestrians from traversing the raised edges of the walkway step, which presents a tripping hazard. The design of the area and the height of the fence created a condition in which it was foreseeable that pedestrians would surmount the fence, either by climbing or jumping. A fence intended as a barrier to pedestrian traffic should be at a height appropriate for such purpose. He said several building codes state that barriers to prevent falls should be at least 42 inches high. Because of this, Storace concluded that the subject fence should have been that high.

The trial court determined that the building codes were irrelevant. They do not apply to the fence. Furthermore, they found the average person possessed sufficient knowledge to determine whether the fence was unreasonably dangerous.

Admissibility of Engineering Expert Witness:

Writing for the panel, Judge Joseph H. Pellegrino said the issue on appeal is whether Storace’s opinion improperly was precluded because the average juror has sufficient knowledge to determine whether the fence was reasonably safe. The codes upon which Storace relied in his report pertain only to the interior of buildings. The panel disagreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the building codes are evidence of the standard of care regarding the fence in question, even though the fence was not required to conform to the codes.

The plaintiff’s expert relied on code sections that do not dictate the dimensions of an exterior fence, the panel said. Furthermore, Storace determined that the fence at issue and a “guard” described in the building code share the same purpose — to prevent a fall. The YMCA presented testimony that the purpose of the fence was not to prevent falls but to prevent people from walking on the flowers surrounding the monument stone. Thus, the panel said the standards set by the codes are irrelevant as to whether the outdoor fence was reasonably safe. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the testimony, the panel said.