“What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”: Newark Team Concludes Six-Year-Long Litigation with Significant Trial Win
Newark, N.J. (July 28, 2022) - Newark Partner Afsha Noran and Managing Partner Colin P. Hackett recently obtained a unanimous (6-0) “no cause” jury verdict on behalf of a national restaurant chain following a fully virtual, five-day trial. This victory concludes an odyssey that began several years ago.
The Underlying Case
In this matter, Lewis Brisbois represented a national restaurant chain and longstanding firm client that the plaintiff sued in 2016 after slipping and falling from exterior stairs leading to the client’s restaurant. The plaintiff suffered a fracture as well as ligament and tendon tears to her right ankle, which required emergency surgery, a four-day hospital stay, subsequent treatment, and medical expenses in excess of $200,000.
In January 2018, Lewis Brisbois filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of negligence because she failed to present any evidence demonstrating that the restaurant had notice of the alleged hazardous condition – a “greasy filmy substance” on the stairs – before she fell. In March 2018, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Lewis Brisbois’ client, and the plaintiff appealed. In August 2020, a three-member appellate court panel determined that there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that the restaurant did, in fact, have notice of the alleged hazardous condition. As such, it reversed the trial court’s summary judgment decision and remanded the matter to the trial court. Following the appellate court’s ruling, the plaintiff made a demand of $850,000, which remained in place throughout the trial.
During the trial of this case in July 2022, the restaurant’s manager testified that no slip-and-falls occurred on the stairs before or after the plaintiff’s incident, and defense counsel elicited testimony from multiple witnesses, including plaintiff, that the presence of any “slippery filmy substance” was first alleged during the plaintiff’s deposition in 2017. In addition, the defense liability expert – a professional engineer with expertise in exterior commercial staircase construction and safety – testified that the restaurant’s stairs were the “gold standard” in slip resistance.
As to damages, Lewis Brisbois’ cross-examination of the plaintiff and her treating physician, as well as its direct examination of the defendant’s medical expert, highlighted that the plaintiff had a history of ankle injuries before and after her fall at the restaurant, and that the fall did not cause any permanent disability. Notably, the plaintiff had denied any prior or subsequent injuries to her ankle during discovery. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury deliberated for 46 minutes before determining that the plaintiff failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant was negligent.
The trial of this case was particularly unique because it was conducted virtually in its entirety, notwithstanding that most trials in New Jersey courts are now conducted live, even if jury selection is done virtually. Indeed, in 2022 so far, this trial team has selected four juries virtually in other cases, but all were tried in-person. Nevertheless, Lewis Brisbois’ team overcame the challenges associated with presenting witnesses and documents in an online setting, ultimately securing a long-anticipated victory for its client.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” said Mr. Hackett of the years-long litigation. Commenting on the state of virtual trials in the Garden State, he noted, “While virtual jury selection does work and could continue, it is the opinion of this trial team that conducting the actual trial virtually is not here to stay. The technological issues that occur with the virtual presentation of witnesses and documents add to the inevitable evidentiary issues that routinely arise in any trial. These added technical issues results in virtual trials becoming a virtual minefield of appealable issues.”
Ms. Noran is a member of the General Liability, Products Liability, and Commercial Litigation Practices. She primarily concentrates on premises, products, transportation, and asbestos liability matters. During the pendency of this litigation, which began the year Ms. Noran joined Lewis Brisbois, she took one of her first depositions (the plaintiff’s), rose from junior associate to partner, and ultimately to co-trial counsel.
Mr. Hackett is a member of Lewis Brisbois’ National Trial, General Liability, Products Liability, Construction, Transportation, and Asbestos Practices. He has served as first-chair in over 60 jury trials involving general liability, transportation, product, environmental contamination, and professional liability claims in state and federal courts.