Court: United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
Case Name: Sheetz v. Wal-Mart Stores, East, L.P.
Citation: 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193469
The plaintiff trips on a shoe rack in one of the defendant’s stores. She alleges negligent rack positioning and retains a retail safety expert. The defendant, however, says the expert isn’t qualified in this field at all.
The court agrees. The expert is highly qualified in marketing and merchandising fields. But this doesn’t make him qualified to speak on the shoe rack hazards. Additionally, he only offers retail safety evidence in the form of past court decisions. For this reason, the court partially strikes his testimony.
The plaintiff tripped on a shoe rack in the defendant’s store. She sustained severe injuries. The plaintiff claimed the defendant was negligent in their shoe rack alignment and placement. The plaintiff hired a retail safety expert witness to support her case.
The Plaintiff’s Retail Safety Expert Witness
The plaintiff’s retail safety expert witness held a B.A. in accounting and an M.A. in business administration. He was a marketing professor at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. Here, the expert developed and taught courses in retailing, marketing principles, and sales and services marketing. He taught courses to over 50,000 students over 40 years. The expert was a retailing faculty expert who acted as a link between the retail industry and Penn State. Specifically, he received one of two nationwide professorships for higher education retail management by Kohl’s Department Stores. Further, he competed in the J.C. Penney Professor Internship Program. Additionally, Wal-Mart invited the expert to attend both the Annual Shareholder Meeting and the University Conference.
The expert sought to opine on the defendant’s in-store safety standards. Specifically, he examined the configuration and location of the shoe rack. He also assessed the risks inherent in its positioning.
The defendant insisted the expert lacked the qualifications to make an admissible opinion on the safety conditions present in-store. In particular, the defendant objected to the expert’s examination of the shoe department and shoe rack where the plaintiff fell. The defendant agreed that the expert was qualified as a marketing expert. However, they asserted he was not a retail safety expert.
The court agreed that the expert had a comprehensive retail marketing history. This was demonstrated by his curriculum vitae and trial testimony. However, the court had difficulty determining whether this applied to the matter at hand. Specifically, the court focused on whether the expert could appropriately assess the safety of the shoe rack’s positioning.
The court asserted that the expert was qualified to testify about issues relating to general merchandising practices and retail environment techniques. These issues included floor and shelving layout, and product displays. This also included the function and arrangement of aisle end caps.
However, the court agreed with the defendant on the shoe rack matter. Here, the court found the expert’s opinions were unreliable. The expert did not describe any concepts or techniques he relied on in drawing his conclusions on the shoe rack. Further, he didn’t give any evidence of how his knowledge and experience provided adequate justification for such conclusions. Instead, the expert relied on two previous state court decisions.
The court was not persuaded that these cases provided an admissible basis for an expert opinion under Rule 703. Moreover, the expert largely parroted the conclusions and observations of a human factors expert witness included in one of the previous decisions.
The court granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s retail safety expert’s testimony.
Key Takeaways for Experts
This case demonstrates the importance of verifying your expertise is a good match for a case. The expert here was clearly qualified in general merchandising topics. However, his lack of expertise regarding the shoe rack’s positioning was clear to the court. Make sure every opinion you offer can be backed with industry-accepted evidence and your own professional knowledge.