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Appellate Division Reverses Denial of Rule 104 Hearing in Products Liability Matter

January 29, 2018

ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recently published decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

A recent New Jersey case involved a high school student appealing a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant manufacturer of cafeteria tables. The student’s finger was caught in the table’s locking mechanism when the table unexpectedly folded, and the student required surgery to repair his injuries.

 

The student retained an engineering expert, whose report concluded that: (1) the student’s actions were reasonable and not a cause of the accident; (2) by manufacturing the table with locking hinges several inches from the end of the table, defendant created an unreasonably dangerous condition that was the cause of the student’s injuries; (3) defendant’s failure to design the table with an inaccessible locking mechanism deprived users of safety; and (4) had defendant designed the table with a locking hinge in the center of the table, this incident would not have occurred. The trial court barred this opinion as a net opinion, reasoning that the expert, during his deposition testimony, made inconsistent statements regarding whether a distance of three-and one-half to five inches between the hinge and the edge of the table was safe. The trial court also denied the student’s request for a Rule 104 hearing to prove the admissibility of the opinion, reasoning that the court had already afforded the student ample opportunity to present the expert’s opinions through both his deposition and in his later written certification.

 

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court, vacated the Order granting summary judgment in favor of defendant, and remanded the matter back to the trial court to hold a Rule 104 hearing. The Appellate Division reasoned that a Rule 104 hearing would have allowed the student a fair opportunity to clarify any confusion in the expert’s testimony, and to determine whether the testimony was based on scientifically sound reasoning or unsubstantiated personal beliefs. A Rule 104 hearing was especially important in this matter because barring the student’s expert would result in the dismissal of the student’s case. The Appellate Division also held that the trial court erroneously relied on F.R.E. 702, which outlines the federal requirements for scientific testimony, because the New Jersey Supreme Court had explicitly declined to follow the federal rule.

 

Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.