In a recent decision, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s directed verdict for the defense that had been based upon a Plaintiff’s absence of expert testimony concerning possible causes for a shattered flower vase. Mayer v. Once Upon A Rose, Inc., A-2922-11T3 (App. Div. 2013) approved for publication. In Mayer, the Plaintiff, a caterer, suffered serious injuries to his hands when a flower and water filled vase being carried by the florist Defendant shattered into glass shards. Both the Plaintiff and the Defendant were setting up for an engagement party when Plaintiff observed the Defendant struggling to carry a rectangular glass vase containing a floral arrangement that extended a few feet out of the vase. According to Plaintiff, Defendant was carrying the vase with outstretched arms and between his palms by applying pressure to opposing flat sides of the vase. Plaintiff ran over to assist Defendant, but as he reached his hands under the vase, the glass shattered.
Plaintiff brought a claim based upon res ipsa loquitur arguing that the vase had been in the exclusive control of the Defendant and was unlikely to have exploded without some negligent act on the part of Defendant. At trial, Defendant moved for a directed verdict at the close of Plaintiff’s case. The Trial Court ruled in Defendant’s favor based on the Plaintiff’s lack of a liability expert to support the Plaintiff’s apparent theory that the pressure from Defendant’s palms caused the vase to explode. The Trial Court believed that without any expert support, Plaintiff was not entitled to reliance on res ipsa loquitur because the Plaintiff had failed to show that it was probable, not just possible, that there was negligence on the part of Defendant. Plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Court took issue with the Trial Court’s belief that Plaintiff was obligated to present an expert to explain why the glass vase shattered. The Court ruled that the jury did not need an expert opinion on this issue as the notion that excessive pressure can cause a glass to shatter is within the common knowledge of jurors and does not require scientific or technical knowledge. The Court cited Jerista v. Murray, 185 N.J. 175, 200 (2005), for the proposition that, “when the average juror can deduce what happened without resort to scientific or technical knowledge, expert testimony is not mandated.”
In Mayer, the Court agreed that while expert testimony may have been helpful to support Plaintiff’s claim, it was not essential. In the view of the Court, the Plaintiff had presented enough evidence to establish that he had not contributed to the shattering of vase, and that the vase had been in the exclusive control of the Defendant. In this scenario an expert was not required to debunk any theoretical alternative cause for the event that did not involve negligence by the Defendant. The Court stated that the theoretical possibility the glass vase had been defectively manufactured, as cited by the Trial Court, did not foreclose Plaintiff’s invocation of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. The Court recognized that the jurors could have rationally ruled against Plaintiff on such a basis, but this possibility did not warrant the Trial Court’s outright dismissal of Plaintiff’s case before the jury had a fair opportunity to consider it.
By Daniel C. Seger, Esq.