NJ Supreme Court Finds in Favor of Sprinkler Contractors in Compliance with NFPA 25 as the Standard of Care
(TRENTON, September 15, 2014) , the New Jersey Supreme Court came to a unanimous decision in a case concerning the issue of whether expert testimony must be offered to establish the standard of care applicable to fire sprinkler contractors who perform inspections pursuant to the relevant provisions of the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code. The case is Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Ltd., et al. and the pertinent facts are set below.
Irene Davis and her two children resided in a second floor suite at the Staybridge Suites Hotel which has a storage closet without a fire sprinkler beneath a staircase leading to the second floor. Defendants, Atlantic Fire Service (Atlantic), Cintas Corporation (Cintas) and Master Protection L.P. d/b/a Fire Master L.P. (Fire Master) each performed sprinkler inspections at the hotel and did not advise the hotel owner that a storage closet required a fire sprinkler. A fire subsequently occurred at the hotel causing serious injury to Davis and killing her two children. Plaintiffs, Irene Davis and her husband, Wayne Davis, individually and on behalf of the Estates of their children, brought claims against the Defendants alleging the Defendants’ inspectors had negligently failed to inform the hotel owner of the need to install a sprinkler in the storage closet.
Plaintiffs and Defendants each presented experts during the pretrial proceedings to address the proper standard of care for the Defendants’ inspectors. The Defendants’ experts asserted that a consensus standard developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) represented the full extent of the responsibilities of sprinkler maintenance inspectors. The Defendants’ experts concluded that their inspectors had properly complied with NFPA 25 which did not require them to evaluate the need for an additional sprinkler or to notify the hotel owner about any such need. Plaintiffs’ expert agreed that NFPA 25 did not require the Defendants’ inspectors to identify or report the need for additional sprinkler, but stated that the sprinkler inspectors must exercise reasonable care, a standard that requires precautions beyond compliance with NFPA 25. Plaintiffs’ experts concluded that Defendants’ inspectors failed to exercise reasonable care when they neglected to notify the hotel owner that a sprinkler was needed in the storage closet.
The Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that NFPA 25 constituted the applicable standard of care and that Plaintiff could not prove that the Defendants’ inspectors breached that standard. Defendants also asserted that Plaintiffs’ experts view a higher standard of reasonable care must be satisfied constituted an impermissible net opinion. The trial court found that the Defendants’ inspectors were not required to satisfy any standard of care beyond that contained in NFPA 25 and that Plaintiffs failed to establish that the Defendants’ breached that standard. Therefore, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Atlantic, Cintas and Fire Master. Plaintiffs appealed and the Appellate division reversed the trial court’s decision in finding that compliance with the safety regulations, such as NFPA 25, was not dispositive on the issue of negligence. The Appellate court found that reasonable care was the applicable standard and whether the Defendants met that standard remained a question of material fact for a jury to decide. The Supreme Court of New Jersey then granted the Defendants’ petitions for certification.
The New Jersey Supreme Court found that Plaintiffs were required to establish the applicable standard of care through expert testimony. The standard of care set forth by Plaintiffs’ experts constituted an inadmissible net opinion because it lacked objective support. Summary judgment in favor of the Defendants was appropriate because as a result of Plaintiffs’ failure to support their asserted standard of care they were unable to establish the required elements of their negligence claim.
Compliance with NFPA 25 does not, as a matter of law, prevent a finding of negligence. “The customs of an industry are not conclusive on the issue of the proper standard of care; they are most evidential of this standard.” Wellenheider v. Rader, 49 N.J. 1, 7 (1967). Similarly, a regulatory code or standard “is evidence of due care but is not conclusive on this subject.” Black v. Pub Serv. Electric & Gas Co., 56 N.J. 63, 77 (1970). In Black, when considering whether a utility company could be found negligent for failing to post danger signs not required by the National Electric Safety Code, the court explained that safety codes represent minimum standards and do not establish the complete duty of the utility under all circumstances. Id. 76-77. Here, because the DCA promulgated the Uniform Fire Code at the legislatures direction to create a safety code with requirements for fire suppression systems, the Uniform Fire Code or its successor provides the standard of care for Defendants’ inspectors absent competent expert testimony that a different standard of care is generally recognized in the fire prevention field.
Moreover, an expert may not provide “a mere net opinion.” Pomerantz Paper Corp. v. New Cty. Corp., 207 N.J. 344, 372 (2011). An expert offers an inadmissible opinion if he or she “cannot offer objective support for his or her opinions, but testifies only to a view about a standard that is personal.” Id. Plaintiffs’ experts’ assertions that the Defendants’ inspectors had a duty beyond NFPA 25 to report the need for an additional sprinkler lacked objective support. Plaintiffs’ experts’ sources address the role of sprinkler inspectors. Although they maintained that NFPA was improperly written, in that it should have included a requirement for reporting design flaws, they did not reference any document or unwritten custom accepted by the fire safety community to support that opinion. Because Plaintiffs did not support their asserted standard of care, a breach of that standard with admissible expert opinion, they are unable to establish the required elements of their negligence cause of action. Defendants therefore were entitled to summary judgment.