February 15, 2008
MARK NEUSTADTER AND KATHERINE NEUSTADTER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, L-670-03.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 11, 2007
Before Judges Skillman, Yannotti and LeWinn.
Plaintiffs, husband and wife, appeal from the trial court's grant of an involuntary dismissal at the end of their case seeking damages for injuries allegedly sustained by plaintiff- husband, Mark Neustadter (hereinafter "plaintiff"), in an accident on defendant's premises, a ski resort.
On January 7, 2002, plaintiff, an acknowledged snowboarding expert, was injured while snowboarding at defendant's resort when he collided with a post supporting orange netting on the slope. The gravamen of his negligence claim was that the post was so deeply embedded in snow, and of such an inflexible material, that it was immovable and took the full force of his body, resulting in a shattered knee.
At the conclusion of plaintiff's case, the trial judge determined that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant's part. The judge also concluded that plaintiff had failed to adduce any evidence to show the injury in question was caused by the collision with the identified fence post. Accordingly, the judge dismissed the complaint.
Plaintiff raises the following points on appeal:
POINT I: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN GRANTING DEFENDANTS' [SIC] MOTION FOR AN INVOLUNTARY DISMISSAL PURSUANT TO R. 4:37-2(b)
A. AS TO THE MEDICAL EXPERT, DR. WEISS
B. AS TO THE LIABILITY EXPERT, MR. HANST
1. THE PHOTOGRAPHS
2. THE ALLEGED NET OPINION
POINT II: THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY LIMITED THE EXPERT TESTIMONY OF DR. WEISS AND MR.
HANST POINT III: THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY PERMITTING DEFENDANT TO CROSS-EXAMINE PLAINTIFF'S EXPERT WITH A DOCUMENT IT FAILED TO PRODUCE IN DISCOVERY POINT IV: THE TRIAL COURT IMPROPERLY EXCLUDED THE INTRODUCTION OF PLAINTIFF'S MEDICAL BILLS INTO EVIDENCE POINT V: THE TRIAL COURT SHOULD NOT HAVE PERMITTED DEFENDANT TO NAME A MEDICAL EXPERT AFTER THE CONCLUSION OF THE ARBITRATION
Having thoroughly reviewed the trial record, we are convinced the judge properly limited the testimony of plaintiff's liability expert and correctly concluded that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant's part. This conclusion makes it unnecessary to reach the other issues raised on appeal.
In his complaint, plaintiff claimed defendant "negligently, carelessly, and/or recklessly designed, constructed, supervised, operated and/or maintained the premises so as to create and/or allow a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist." He set forth the "particulars" of defendant's negligence as follows:
a) Defendant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that the unprotected pole was dangerous, and Defendant failed to warn Plaintiff of that condition;
b) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a material in order to protect Plaintiff from being injured should Plaintiff come into contact with the pole;
c) Defendant knew, or should have known, that the pole, if left open and exposed was likely to be dangerous to ski[ers] and snowboarders, and with such knowledge Defendant failed to cover the pole or use any other means to keep it safe for its business invitees;
d) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a protective covering for the protection of skiers and snowboarders; and
e) Defendant permitted the pole to be left unprotected and defective and dangerous knowing that the pole would necessarily pose a risk of harm to Plaintiff and other business invitees, skiers, and snowboarders.
Plaintiff proffered John H. Hanst as his liability expert. Hanst rendered a report on May 21, 2005. Other than his review of documents, Hanst's opinions were based solely upon his one and only site visit to the ski resort on March 24, 2005, more than three years after plaintiff's accident.
During that site visit Hanst "reconstructed" the accident with plaintiff and described the reconstruction in his report as follows: "We walked up the trail to the area where the incident occurred. The area was modestly changed. . . . A few of the fence posts have been covered with padding although the majority of them were not padded." (Emphasis added). Hanst included photographs of the reconstructed accident scene in his report.
Defendant challenged Hanst's report and testimony in an in limine motion. Defendant contended that Hanst described "conditions that were not those described by the Plaintiff. . . . H[is report] talk[ed] about a condition that did not exist and [wa]s not relevant or material to the case that w[ould] be before th[e] Court."
In ruling on that motion, the trial judge found that Hanst's report described conditions that were not in existence "on the date of [plaintiff's] . . . accident. . . . They were at a [much later] time . . . when the conditions on the slope were not the same. Nobody can say they were the same." (Emphasis added).
The judge limited Hanst's testimony to "what conditions should exist on a ski slope and how the conditions on the day in question deviated, based upon the testimony of Mr. Neustadter." The judge also ruled Hanst's photographs of the reconstructed accident scene inadmissible because they "specifically show poles that are different from those that are described by Mr. Neustadter as existing in the area where he was injured on the day in question." In the course of his ruling, the judge noted that Hanst's report did not address plaintiff's claim that "the poles had been in the snow too long and ice had formed around them and possibly they didn't flex the way they should."
At trial, plaintiff testified that he swerved to avoid a cluster of skiers ahead of him. This caused him to collide with a PVC pole, one to two inches in diameter, that was supporting orange mesh fencing erected to distinguish the expert trail from the novice trail.
At the conclusion of Hanst's voir dire, the judge limited his qualification as an expert to the area of alpine skiing, and excluded him from giving expert testimony on the subject of "mountain management" since he had no experience in that field. The sum total of Hanst's liability testimony was that a rigid pole was a "man-made hazard," and the ski operator had an obligation to reduce or eliminate that hazard.
After plaintiff had completed presentation of his case-in-chief, defendant moved for involuntary dismissal of the complaint pursuant to Rule 4:37-2(b). The judge granted the motion finding that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to establish liability under the Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11. The judge additionally found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to show that any negligence on the part of defendant was a proximate cause of his injury. On June 23, 2006, the judge entered an order memorializing his findings. This appeal followed.
Plaintiff argues that the judge erred by granting defendant's motion for involuntary dismissal of their complaint. He maintains that defendant had a duty under the Ski Statute to remove any "obvious man-made hazard" from the premises. Plaintiff contends that he presented evidence showing that he struck a man-made fence pole. He contends further that, because his evidence showed that the post was rigid, thereby constituting a "hazard," the jury should have been permitted to determine whether defendant failed to discharge its duty to remove the pole. We disagree.
Rule 4:37-2(b) provides that, upon completion of a plaintiff's case-in-chief, the defendant . . . may move for dismissal of the action or of any claim on the ground that upon the facts and upon the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. . . . [S]uch motion shall be denied if the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in plaintiff's favor.
In other words, dismissal is appropriate where the court determines that no rational jury could conclude from the evidence that an essential element of plaintiff's case is present. "The trial court is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent . . . of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to the party opposing the motion." Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 5-6 (1969). Where, as here, plaintiff failed to adduce expert testimony on the essential element of liability, such failure will warrant dismissal of his personal injury action.
The Ski Statute clearly defines the respective liabilities of skiers and ski operators, and sets forth the duties of both and the assumption of risk borne by skiers. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -5. The statute states that a skier's assumption of risk under N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 bars recovery for injuries sustained due to "the inherent risks of skiing . . . created by weather conditions, conditions of snow, trails, slopes, other skiers, and all other inherent conditions." N.J.S.A. 5:13-6 states that a skier's assumption of risk: shall be a complete bar of suit and shall serve as a complete defense to a suit against an operator by a skier for injuries resulting from the assumed risks, . . . unless an operator has violated his duties or responsibilities under this act, in which case the provisions of [comparative negligence] shall apply.
The Ski Statute imposes upon the ski operator a duty to "[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards." N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3). However, the statute expressly exempts a ski operator from liability for its failure to remove man-made hazards such as fencing or poles which are necessary for the normal operation of a ski resort, as follows:
No operator shall be responsible to any skier or other person because of its failure to [remove obvious man-made hazards] if such failure was caused by . . . the location of man-made facilities and equipment necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area, such as . . . fencing of any type, racing poles, or any other object or piece of equipment utilized in connection with the maintenance of trails . . . used in connection with skiing. [N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(b)(3) (emphasis added).]
In addition, a ski operator shall not be held liable for failure to remove obvious, man-made hazards unless the operator "has knowledge of the failure to [remove man-made hazards]" or "should have reasonably known of such condition and having such knowledge has had a reasonable time in which to correct [the] condition." N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(d).
Plaintiff failed to present any evidence to support his allegations that the fence post was an obvious, man-made hazard; or that defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of an obvious, man-made hazard relating to plaintiff's injuries; or that defendant failed to remove such a hazard within a reasonable time. Therefore, the trial judge correctly found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that defendant failed to meet its duty under N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) to "[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards." As the trial judge recognized, liability may not be imposed under the Ski Statute if a ski operator's failure to comply with N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) was caused by the "location of man-made facilities" that are "necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area[.]"
In his decision on the record, the judge aptly observed that there was nothing inappropriate about the placement of the fence posts delineating the expert trail and the novice trail; and it was plaintiff's burden to show, through expert testimony, that something had happened to the poles after their installation which rendered them hazardous and not "necessary for the ordinary operation" of the facility. The judge properly determined that plaintiff had not met his burden in this regard. Moreover, the judge rightly found that plaintiff had not presented any evidence to show that defendant was aware, or reasonably should have been aware, that the poles had become hazardous for a reasonable period of time in which to address that condition. Therefore, the judge correctly determined that the evidence presented by plaintiff, and the "legitimate inferences" that could be drawn from that evidence, were insufficient to "sustain a judgment in plaintiff's favor." R. 4:37-2(b).
Plaintiff additionally argues that the judge erred by limiting Hanst's testimony at trial. Again, we disagree. A trial judge has the discretion to determine whether an expert is competent to testify. Carey v. Lovett, 132 N.J. 44, 64 (1993). As we stated previously, the judge barred Hanst from testifying concerning the fencing on defendant's premises because Hanst's opinions were not based on the conditions that existed at the time plaintiff was injured. At trial, the judge also precluded Hanst from testifying that defendant should have had special "break away poles" and refused to permit Hanst to speculate as to whether weather conditions that might have existed at the time of the accident caused the PVC poles to become inflexible. None of those issues had been addressed in Hanst's report. We are convinced that the judge did not abuse his discretion by limiting Hanst's testimony.
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