RI Supreme Court Holds that No Expert Needed in Case of Porch Collapse

After a Providence County jury awarded a $190,000 verdict to a residential tenant who fell from a 2nd floor porch after the railing collapsed in Cayetano Giron et al al v. Jane F. Bailey et al., the residential landlords appealed  to the Rhode Island Supreme Court arguing that the verdict should be overturned because the tenant introduced no expert evidence that the railing was unreasonably dangerous or defective or that the owner should have known of its condition.

The RI Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision by Superior Court Associate Justice Netti C. Vogel in an 11-page opinion written by Justice Francis X. Flaherty:

“Expert testimony may be admitted when such testimony will aid the trier of fact in understanding a subject matter beyond the ken of a lay person of ordinary intelligence.” Kelly v. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, 740 A.2d 1243, 1248 (R.I. 1999) (citing Allen v. State, 420 A.2d 70, 72-73 (R.I. 1980)). But expert testimony is not necessary “[i]f all the facts and circumstances can be accurately described to a jury and if the jury is as capable of comprehending and understanding such facts and drawing correct conclusions from them as is the expert * * *.” Allen, 420 A.2d at 73 (quoting Barenbaum v. Richardson, 114 R.I. 87, 90-91, 328 A.2d 731, 733 (1974)).

We hold that the evidence enabled the jury to conclude, without the necessity of expert testimony, that the landlord’s breach was a proximate cause of Cayetano’s fall through the railing onto the sidewalk. Cayetano’s stumble on the poorly maintained porch floor caused him to be propelled to the railing. He grasped the railing with one hand in an attempt to halt his fall, but the railing did not support him. The existence of defects in the railing and the floor, Bailey’s awareness of them, and the failure to sufficiently protect or warn Cayetano about these conditions, is more than sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Bailey’s breach of her duty was the proximate cause of Cayetano’s injuries. On these facts, the jury was not speculating about whether the defendant’s breach of her duty was the proximate cause; there was sufficient evidence of causation and expert testimony was not required.

Guy J. Settipane of Providence represented the plaintiffs while Lauren E. Jones and Ralph Dellarosa defended the building owners.

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