New Jersey Supreme Court Reinstates Summary Judgment in Double Fatality Case

New Jersey

In a published opinion affecting all industries subject to professional codes or state regulations, the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated summary judgment for Shook's client, FireMaster, Inc., after granting certiorari to address how administrative regulations affect the standard of care in tort cases.

After a double-fatality fire at a Staybridge Suites hotel, a lawsuit against several fire-protection companies alleged that they should have recommended additional sprinkler coverage during their semi-annual inspections of the hotel's fire-sprinkler system. The trial court granted summary judgment for all defendants because the plaintiffs’ expert admitted that the defendants complied with applicable industry codes adopted as state law in New Jersey. The plaintiffs’ expert failed to cite any reliable scientific or industry sources suggesting the standard of care exceeded what New Jersey had adopted in the administrative codes, so the plaintiffs failed to show any breach of the standard care for their negligence claim, the court found.

Shook's appellate team argued for FireMaster, Inc. against an adverse New Jersey Appellate Division ruling overturning the trial court's grant of summary judgment. Siding with the fire inspection contractors, the New Jersey Supreme Court created favorable precedent on two important issues. First, the court held that absent reliable expert evidence establishing a heightened or alternative standard of care, compliance with a state regulatory scheme evidences compliance with the standard care in a negligence case. The court also held that mere “net opinion” from an expert grounded solely on that expert’s experience is legally insufficient to establish an alternative standard of care in a tort case. Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Ltd., 98 A.3d 1173, 219 N.J. 395 (N.J. 2014).