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McDaid v. Aztec West Condominium Association

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 17, 2018

MAUREEN MCDAID, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
AZTEC WEST CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATION, BERGEN HYDRAULIC ELEVATOR, and PREFERRED MANAGEMENT, INC., Defendants-Respondents.

          Argued March 12, 2018

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Lisa A. Lehrer argued the cause for appellant (Davis, Saperstein & Salomon, attorneys; Lisa A. Lehrer, of counsel and on the brief).

          Robert J. Mormile argued the cause for respondents Aztec West Condominium Association, Inc. and Preferred Management, Inc. (Farkas & Donohue, attorneys; Robert J. Mormile, of counsel, and Christine M. Jones, on the briefs).

          Brian L. Calistri argued the cause for respondent Bergen Hydraulic Elevator (Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, attorneys; Brian L. Calistri and Anthony T. Ling, on the briefs).

          William L. Gold argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Bendit Weinstock, attorneys; William L. Gold, of counsel and on the brief, and Eryn M. Fernandez-Ledon, on the brief).

          ALBIN, J., writing for the Court.

         Res ipsa loquitur is an equitable doctrine that allows, in appropriate circumstances, a permissive inference of negligence to be drawn against a party who exercises exclusive control of an instrumentality that malfunctions and causes injury to another. In Jerista v. Murray, the Court held that the res ipsa inference applied to a supermarket's automatic door that went awry, striking and injuring a customer as she entered the store. 185 N.J. 175, 190-200 (2005). In this negligence case, the Court considers whether the principles enunciated in Jerista apply equally to a condominium building's elevator doors that opened and closed on plaintiff, a resident, seriously injuring her as she attempted to exit the elevator.

         Plaintiff Maureen McDaid brought a negligence action against defendants Aztec West Condominium Association; Preferred Management, Inc., the Association's management company; and Bergen Hydraulic Elevator, the elevator-maintenance provider. The complaint alleged that McDaid suffered serious injuries when she was exiting the elevator and the elevator doors unexpectedly and "repeatedly" closed on her.

         The elevator doors were equipped with two safety features -- a mechanical safety edge and an electric eye. A mechanical safety edge is a bumper that causes an elevator door to retract when it makes contact with an object. An electric eye emits light beams from the elevator doors across the entrance threshold, detecting the presence of objects in its pathway. If working properly, the electric eye prevents the elevator doors from closing on a person.

         Four days after the accident, a construction code official for the City of Hackensack inspected the elevator and determined that the electric eye was in need of repair. Shortly afterward, Bergen Hydraulic conducted an inspection and found that the elevator's electric eye's relay contacts were "not functioning properly" and repaired it that day.

         McDaid provided a report from an expert in elevator repair and maintenance, who concluded that the elevator's malfunctioning electric eye caused the accident. The Condominium Association and Preferred Management submitted an expert report from a certified elevator inspector, which stated that McDaid's "failure to clear the path" of the closing elevator door "in a timely manner" was the proximate cause of her injuries. Bergen Hydraulic's expert report agreed with that assertion and stated that the elevator was "properly maintained" at the time of the accident.

          At the end of the discovery period, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and dismissed McDaid's complaint. The court rejected the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, finding that the malfunctioning of elevator doors is not an occurrence that "ordinarily bespeaks negligence." More specifically, the court stated that McDaid "did not refute the contention that the electric eye, being a mechanical device, is subject to failure from time to time totally unrelated to negligence." Relying on Gore v. Otis Elevator Co., 335 N.J.Super. 296, 302-03 (App.Div. 2000), the court held that McDaid failed "to bring forth affirmative evidence that tends to exclude other causes" for the malfunctioning of the elevator.

         In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed, "substantially for the reasons expressed by [the trial court]."

         The Court granted McDaid's petition for certification. 230 N.J. 528 (2017).

         HELD: The dictates of Jerista apply to the facts presented here. The res ipsa inference of negligence is applicable because common experience instructs that elevator doors -- however complex their operation may be -- ordinarily should not strike a person entering or exiting an elevator in the absence of negligence. To warrant the inference, plaintiff had no obligation to exclude other possible causes that might explain the malfunctioning of the elevator doors or to show that defendants were on notice of some defect in the doors' operation.

         1. Under the Condominium Act, N.J.S.A. 46:8B-1 to -38, condominium associations are "responsible for the administration and management of the condominium and condominium property." N.J.S.A. 46:8B-12. One such duty is to ensure that "elevator doors, . . . safety devices and operating mechanisms [are] maintained in good working order and free of hazards." N.J.A.C. 5:10-12.1(a). That duty necessarily includes a duty of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions relating to the elevator that the association either knows about or should have discovered. (pp. 11-12)

         2. In a premises liability case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the property owner's negligence caused her injuries. Jerista, 185 N.J. at 191. "Res ipsa loquitur, Latin for 'the thing speaks for itself,' is a longstanding evidentiary rule grounded in principles of equity" that "enables the plaintiff to make out a prima facie case" in certain circumstances. Ibid. The res ipsa doctrine allows a factfinder to draw an inference of negligence when: "(a) the occurrence itself ordinarily bespeaks negligence; (b) the instrumentality was within the defendant's exclusive control; and (c) there is no indication in the circumstances that the injury was the result of the plaintiff's own voluntary act or neglect." Id. at 192. The present case implicates only the first prong of the res ipsa analysis -- whether the closing of automatic elevator doors on a passenger "ordinarily bespeaks negligence." Whether an accident "ordinarily bespeaks negligence" requires a probability assessment. Obviously, automatic doors are not supposed to close on and seriously injure a passenger who enters or exits an elevator. But if that happens, is it more likely that the accident occurred because due care was not exercised in the maintenance of the elevator or because elevator doors will malfunction, from time to time, without anyone being at fault? (pp. 12-14)

          3. To invoke the res ipsa inference, a plaintiff does not have to exclude alternative possible causes of the accident, "provided that the circumstances establish 'that it is more probable than not that the defendant's negligence was a proximate cause of the mishap.'" Ibid. The res ipsa inference ordinarily will allow the plaintiff to survive a motion to dismiss at the summary judgment stage unless "the defendant's countervailing proofs are so overwhelming that they destroy any reasonable inference of negligence." Id. at 193. (pp. 14-15)

         4. The Court applied the doctrine of res ipsa in Jerista, a case involving a supermarket's automatic door that caused injury to a patron. Id. at 190-200. The Court reasoned that "[a]n automatic door may be a highly sophisticated piece of machinery, but it probably does not close on an innocent patron causing injury unless the premises' owner negligently maintained it. That conclusion can be reached based on common knowledge without resort to expert testimony." Id. at 197. Importantly, in Jerista, the Court specifically disapproved of the legal pronouncements in Jimenez v. GNOC, Corp., 286 N.J.Super. 533, 544 (App.Div. 1996), that res ipsa is inapplicable in complex instrumentality cases unless expert testimony is presented and the injured party "exclude[s] other possible causes of the injury." Id. at 197-98. Here, the trial court and appellate panel relied on those discredited legal pronouncements, not the principles discussed in Jerista. (pp. 15-18)

         5. In a negligent-maintenance action against a premises' owner and others who exercise exclusive control, the res ipsa principles enunciated in Jerista apply as strongly to malfunctioning elevator doors as they do to malfunctioning automatic doors. Just as, based on common knowledge, an automatic door "probably does not close on an innocent patron causing injury unless the premises' owner negligently maintained it," Jerista, 185 N.J. at 197, the same is true of a malfunctioning elevator door. New Jersey joins those jurisdictions that apply the res ipsa inference to cases involving malfunctioning elevator doors. (pp. 18-20)

         6. Because the malfunctioning of elevator doors that close on a passenger bespeaks negligence, giving rise to a res ipsa inference, the trial court improvidently granted summary judgment based on its analysis of prong one of the res ipsa doctrine. To gain the benefit of the res ipsa inference, McDaid did not have to present expert testimony pinpointing the cause of the malfunction. McDaid was not required to provide evidence that excluded other possible causes of her injuries or that defendants were on notice of a malfunction to trigger the res ipsa inference. This is not a case where proofs presented by defendants were "so overwhelming that they destroy[ed] any reasonable inference of negligence." See id. at 193. At trial, defendants may offer their defenses against the negligence claims, and a jury will be free to accept or reject the res ipsa inference. At this summary judgment stage, however, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to McDaid. Accordingly, the Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division and remands to the trial court for further proceedings. (pp. 20-23)

         REVERSED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.

          OPINION

          ALBIN, JUSTICE

         Res ipsa loquitur is an equitable doctrine that allows, in appropriate circumstances, a permissive inference of negligence to be drawn against a party who exercises exclusive control of an instrumentality that malfunctions and causes injury to another. The rationale for the res ipsa inference is that the injury-causing occurrence ordinarily would not happen in the absence of negligence and that the party controlling the instrumentality is in the best position to explain what went wrong and why. In Jerista v. Murray, we held that the res ipsa inference applied to a supermarket's automatic door that went awry, striking and injuring a customer as she entered the store. 185 N.J. 175, 190-200 (2005).

         In this negligence case, we must decide whether the principles enunciated in Jerista apply equally to a condominium building's elevator doors that opened and closed on plaintiff, a resident, seriously injuring her as she attempted to exit the elevator. The trial court rejected the res ipsa inference, finding that the cause of an elevator's malfunction can be unrelated to negligent maintenance and that plaintiff failed to offer proofs excluding non-fault-based causes. Based in large part on its rejection of the res ipsa inference, the court granted summary judgment to defendants. The Appellate Division affirmed.

         We now hold that the dictates of Jerista apply to the facts presented here. The res ipsa inference of negligence is applicable because common experience instructs that elevator doors -- however complex their operation may be -- ordinarily should not strike a person entering or exiting an elevator in the absence of negligence. To warrant the res ipsa inference, the injured plaintiff had no obligation to exclude other possible causes that might explain the malfunctioning of the elevator doors or to show that defendants were on notice of some defect in the doors' operation. In granting ...


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