Building Code Expert Witness Testimony Partly Excluded for Lack of Interpretation Experience

    Zach Barreto

    Written by
    — Updated on July 14, 2021

    Building Code Expert Witness Testimony Partly Excluded for Lack of Interpretation Experience

    Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Schnur v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores, Inc.
    Citation: 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125

    In this negligence case, the plaintiff reportedly suffered injuries on the sidewalk outside the defendant’s department store. The plaintiff retained a building code expert witness to prove the defendant failed to comply with building codes. The defendant attempted to exclude the expert witness’s testimony based on the expert’s qualifications. 

    The court ruled the building code expert witness’s testimony admissible. Despite the expert’s lack of formal qualifications in building code interpretation, the expert witness could speak on building codes in this case. 

    Facts

    The plaintiff allegedly suffered from injuries when they tripped on an uneven sidewalk outside a department store owned by the defendant. The plaintiffs, a husband and wife, lodged a motion for summary judgment on causation and liability. The plaintiff retained a building code expert witness to support their case.

    The Plaintiff’s Building Code Expert Witness

    The plaintiff retained a building code expert witness to advise on the defendant’s compliance with applicable building codes. The expert’s study concluded that the sidewalk’s deviation was around one inch. The expert witness based the conclusion on measurements and calculations obtained from a photograph. Based on the assumption of a one-inch deviation, the expert opined that the defendant failed to comply with several building code requirements. The defendant insisted the building code expert witness lacked adequate qualifications to testify. They argued that the expert’s opinions lacked reliable methodology backed by sufficient facts and data.

    The defendant questioned the expert’s ability to testify as an expert. They disputed both the expert’s assessments: sidewalk height variance and adherence to various building codes.

    Discussion

    The expert had no specialized experience or schooling in assessing heights based on image study. Although the expert had used this method in his profession since 1977, he never reviewed applicable literature or studied science. The expert witness did not regard himself as an authority in this method. Therefore, the expert was not qualified to testify as to the height of deviation.

    However, the building code expert witness was an expert in compliance with building codes. He held a bachelor’s degree in design and was a licensed architect in Illinois and Wisconsin. The building code expert witness had over 30 years of architectural work experience. Although the expert had no formal qualifications in interpreting building codes, the court deemed his architectural knowledge and expertise adequate. The expert’s background qualified him as a building code expert since the case was not too complicated or technological. To be considered an expert for this case, the building code expert witness did not need a specific specialization.

    Defendant claimed if the expert’s assertion for the deviation was excluded, the remainder of the testimony was inadmissible. The defendant argued for exclusion of the assertion due to inadequate data or facts. However, the court noted that if the trier of fact determined the deviation to be one inch, then the expert’s report would be relevant. The report would assist in interpreting compliance with building codes. The court further noted it didn’t matter if the expert didn’t check other proof of the deviation. The defendant had the right to submit contradictory evidence, which could affect the weight of the expert’s testimony. The court believed the expert’s job was not to weigh and evaluate facts. The building code expert witness’s job was to testify to the defendant’s compliance with building codes provided some assumption.

    The defendant also insisted the expert’s opinions did not apply reliable methodology. However, the court noted the correct approach here was merely to adapt the applicable building codes to the state of the walkway. In addition to adapting to the building codes, the court stated the correct approach was to decide on conformity. The expert identified applicable building codes, drew conclusions on adherence, and offered explanations for his conclusions.

    Ruling

    The building code expert witness’s evidence on the extent of deviation was deemed inadmissible. The expert was not an expert in photographic research However, he was qualified to examine conformance with building code regulations, and he relied on sufficient data and facts. Therefore, the building code expert witness’s testimony was deemed admissible.

    Key Takeaways for Experts

    This case demonstrates the importance of specialized experience for expert witnesses. Not every case topic will require an expert to have an educational background. However, in this case, the expert witness’s testimony was partially excluded for lack of professional education in image study and height assessment. The expert witness’s career in architecture allowed him to opine on certain topics but was not sufficient to back his methodology. Expert witnesses should always confirm that they have the appropriate educational credentials necessary to opine on case topics. In some instances, if an expert lacks educational credentials, it may be necessary for two experts to provide testimony.

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