Notwithstanding the best efforts of firefighters across our nation, the risks posed by unexpected blazes remain. Given the obvious hazards posed by fires, smoke detectors have been an omnipresent fixture on ceilings across America. As a result, questions are likely to be raised when there is a death related to the absence of these commonplace instruments. Indeed, this situation was at the heart of a recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals, Gardner v. Clark.
The facts at issue in Gardner, as viewed favorably to the plaintiffs, are as follows. The mother of the plaintiffs in this action, who filed suit personally and in a representative capacity for their deceased mother, leased a mobile home from the defendant. The decedent moved into the mobile home before all the utilities had been turned on, and on a cold night in November 2009, one of the decedent’s sons and his uncle set a fire in the mobile home fireplace. At some point thereafter, the son, who had returned to his nearby residence, observed that the mobile home was on fire. The son ran back to the mobile home as his wife called 911. His mother, however, unfortunately died in the blaze. At trial, the defendant acknowledged that the decedent died in the mobile home fire and that as a leasor of property, he was required to ensure that the property was equipped with functional smoke detectors. The defendant testified that there were electric smoke detectors in the home that would have worked had the utilities been connected. The defendant, however, acknowledged that he was unaware of any state law regarding battery-powered smoke detectors.
An arson investigator qualified in fire investigations testified that he responded to the fire at the mobile home and that he neither identified evidence of the existence of a hearth, a type of safety barrier, nor found any smoke detector remnants. Based on the absence of remnants, the investigator stated that he believed there were no smoke detectors in the mobile home. The investigator further testified that the body of the decedent was found in the corner of a room and that when a victim is found in a corner, it indicates that he or she was alive at the time of the fire and was attempting to find an escape. The investigator’s observation was supported by the burn pattern on the decedent’s body, and the investigator stated that he had seen the decedent’s autopsy report, which stated that her death was caused by the fire. The investigator also stated that a person is most likely to survive a fire if functional smoke detectors are present.
At the close of the plaintiffs’ case, the defendant moved for a directed verdict, which the trial court granted. In its order granting the motion, the trial court specifically noted that the plaintiffs had not put forth “evidence,  expert evidence[,] as to the cause of death of [the decedent]” and that “no medical doctor . . . medical examiner. . . testified to the cause of death.” Accordingly, based on the siblings’ perceived failure to propound evidence to establish the decedent’s cause of death, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of the defendant. The plaintiffs then brought the current appeal.
On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed that the trial judge’s directed verdict was in error and reversed. As a general matter, “expert evidence . . . is not required to prove causation in a simple negligence case.” Cowart v. Widener, 287 Ga. 622 (2010). Expert testimony is, however, required to establish causation if there is “a medical question involving truly specialized medical knowledge (rather than the sort of medical knowledge that is within common understanding and experience).” Id. The Georgia Supreme Court cautioned that the term “medical question” should not be understood as broadly as it is in common parlance; instead, a “medical question” is only present when the issues are of such a specialized quality that they would be beyond the grasp of lay members of a jury without explanation. Id. Applying this standard, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred in concluding that the plaintiffs needed to propound expert evidence to support their case. Instead, the court held that the jury need not have expert evidence to conclude that the decedent in this case died as a result of the fire. See, e.g., Donson Nursing Facilities v. Dixon, 176 Ga. App. 700-01 (1985) (holding that trial court properly denied motion for directed verdict because expert testimony was unnecessary to establish that victim died in a fire). Furthermore, the Court of Appeals noted that the plaintiffs had, in fact, put forth expert testimony in the form of the fire investigator who opined on the cause of the decedent’s death. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.
The plaintiffs will get a second bite at the apple, but ultimately it would have been preferable had the trial judge not made an error in the first instance. Indeed, trial litigation is not an easy endeavor, and those with a viable negligence claim should consider enlisting the aid of experienced trial counsel to help them navigate the process and minimize the errors that may arise. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have considerable experience representing clients in both state and federal courts, and they are prepared to help those with a possibly meritorious claim. Indeed, if you’ve recently been harmed as a result of possible negligence and are curious about the viability of your case, feel free to contact us to arrange a complimentary case evaluation.