Law School Case Brief
Butts v. Weisz - 410 F. App'x 470 (3d Cir. 2010)
To establish negligence in Pennsylvania, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the breach resulted in injury to the plaintiff, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damage.
USCS Fed Rules Evid R 702 requires that expert testimony be based on "sufficient facts or data" and be "the product of reliable principles and methods." The word "reliable" connotes an evidentiary standard "lower than the merits of correctness."
Mr. and Mrs. Butts travelled to the home of their good friends, the Weiszes. During that visit, Mr. Butts died from blunt head trauma after falling down the basement stairwell in the home of appellees Lloyd and Georgia Weisz. No one saw Butts fall. His widow, the executrix of his estate, filed a negligence suit against the Weiszes pursuant to Pennsylvania's Wrongful Death Act, the Survival Act, and under the common law theory of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Mrs. Butts retained an expert who filed a report and thereafter testified at his deposition opining that dim lighting conditions and a dangerous single step caused Mr. Butts to fall. The Weiszes moved to preclude consideration of that testimony, arguing that it was speculative and lacked a reasonable basis. The district court agreed. It permitted the expert to opine "regarding a normal person's gait, . . . that a single step is dangerous, that a person walking might trip over a dangerous single step, and that such a trip could lead to a fall." Subsequently, the Weiszes filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of causation, arguing that Mrs. Butts had failed to present any evidence that the lighting conditions or single step caused Mr. Butts to fall. The district court agreed on this issue also, finding that Mr. Butts "could have fallen for reasons other than" the negligence of the defendants. The court granted the motion of Mr. and Mrs. Weisz for summary judgment on causation and dismissed the case because that issue was dispositive. Mrs. Butts appealed arguing that the court abused its discretion when it limited the expert testimony.
Did the district court err in limiting the testimony of the expert retained by Mrs. Butts?
The court found no abuse of discretion in the district court's order limiting the testimony of the expert retained by Mrs. Butts. As the district court recognized, the expert's testimony as to the cause of Mr. Butts' fall was speculative and unreliable because no one witnessed the fall. Neither did the court find any error in the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Mr. and Mrs. Weisz. The court also noted that Mrs. Butts failed to establish that Mr. and Mrs. Weisz breached a duty they owed to Mr. Butts regarding the single step. They did not breach any duty because Mr. Butts had successfully navigated that step numerous times in the hours preceding his fall.
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