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Hill v. Metropolitan African Methodist Episocpal Church

August 30, 2001

KAREN V. HILL, APPELLANT
v.
METROPOLITAN AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, ET AL., APPELLEES



Before Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges, and King, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Gregory E. Mize, Trial Judge)

Argued April 5, 2001

Appellant was injured when she fell on a stairway while leaving the inauguration ceremony for the new chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP"), held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church ("the Church"). The trial court granted summary judgment for both the NAACP and the Church on appellant's negligence claims when appellant failed to designate any expert to testify on the standard of care for crowd control. We affirm.

A.

The basic facts for purposes of summary judgment on the issue before us were not in dispute. Plaintiff was seated in a side pew toward the back of the main sanctuary of the church. When the inauguration ceremony ended, in appellant's own words, the following occurred:

Someone in clerical garb made that general announcement, asked that the people -- that there be an overall orderly departure . . . and that everybody allow people in the center to leave first, and then everybody from the main sanctuary to leave, and then people from the balcony to leave.

In conformity with this announcement, appellant describes the egress as: "all the rows ahead [of us] . . . had departed prior [to us], and [then] the row immediately in front of where I was sitting . . . had departed. And then the row that I was in, those people walked out into the aisle." Appellant then proceeded to the landing outside the sanctuary to exit via a stairway. Suddenly there was a "rush" of people, perhaps from the balcony. In the pushing and shoving crowd, appellant could not see when she reached the top of the stairway and she fell down.

Appellant's theory of liability, briefly put, was that no ushers were in charge of crowd control for the departure process and that no expert testimony was needed on the subject. The trial court encapsulated its contrary reasoning as follows: "The court finds plaintiff's assertion that `[t]he issue of providing ushers for church services where attendance is approximately seventeen hundred to two thousand persons is within the common knowledge and experience of the reasonable juror' to be erroneous. . . . [T]he court remains firm in its belief that the duty to provide crowd control in a church setting is sufficiently unique such that the law requires some sort of expert testimony in order to establish a basic standard of care that defendants could have breached."

In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, this court conducts an independent, de novo review of the record in a light most favorable to the opposing party. Klock v. Miller & Long Co., 763 A.2d 1147, 1149 (D.C. 2000). We affirm the grant of summary judgment "only [if] there are no genuine issues of material fact and [if] the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56. The outcome of our review is in accord with the trial court.

B.

"The plaintiff in a negligence action bears the burden of proof on three issues: the applicable standard of care, a deviation from that standard by the defendant, and a causal relationship between that deviation and the plaintiff's injury." Levy v. Schnabel Foundation Co., 584 A.2d 1251, 1255 (D.C. 1991). With respect to the first requirement, as we recently had occasion to reaffirm, "[a] plaintiff must put on expert testimony to establish what the standard of care is if the subject in question is so distinctly related to some science, profession or occupation as to be beyond the ken of the average layperson." District of Columbia v. Arnold & Porter, 756 A.2d 427, 433 (D.C. 2000) (citations omitted). Conversely, no expert testimony is needed if the subject matter is "within the realm of common knowledge and everyday experience." Id. *fn1

A particularly relevant case in illustrating the need of expert testimony in a factual context of everyday experience is District of Columbia v. Freeman, 477 A.2d 713 (D.C. 1984). A car struck a six-year-old child at an intersection. The plaintiff attempted to establish that the District was negligent in failing to provide sufficient pedestrian protection at that intersection. The plaintiff placed into evidence aerial photographs, diagrams, and dimensions of the intersection, as well as the testimony of four lay witnesses that the intersection was dangerous despite the presence of a crosswalk (itself a traffic control device), and that some form of stop sign or light was needed. Notwithstanding all this evidence, we ruled that the trial court erred in holding that no expert testimony was required:

[W]e are persuaded that, whether a painted crosswalk is sufficient to render a particular intersection reasonably safe is a determination essentially technical in nature, based upon an expert evaluation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns, design feasibility, cost effectiveness, and related variables . . . . [T]he fatal flaw in appellee's presentation was the lack of expert testimony from traffic engineers, designers, or highway safety experts, placing the evidence in an appropriate context for the jury . . . . The layman, although he may cross the street regularly, does not possess the technical knowledge needed to ...


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