Judge permits plaintiff's expert witness testimony in injury case against LA Fitness

By Jon Campisi | Jul 25, 2013

“This case brings the court to the Court.”

That’s how U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter began her 17-page memorandum opinion in a personal injury case leveled against LA Fitness International LLC by a gym member who claims the defendant’s negligence led to him developing an elbow injury.

By the end of her opinion, the federal jurist determined that the case could proceed, with Pratter denying two defense motions, one to exclude witness testimony and the other seeking summary judgment.

Plaintiff Khalif Jones is suing the fitness chain over an alleged June 2009 incident in which the man says he injured himself while playing basketball on an indoor court at the LA Fitness health club in Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County.

While attempting to block a shot, Jones jumped beyond the baseline and, “suddenly and without warning,” fell into an unpadded section of the back wall of the court, dislocating his elbow, the plaintiff asserts in his complaint.

As a result of the incident, Jones sustained severe and permanent injury to the elbow joint, including right elbow posterior dislocation, lateral epicondylitis and joint effusion, his suit states.

In the complaint, which was initiated at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas but later removed by the defense to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania based on diversity jurisdiction, Jones alleges that LA Fitness was negligent, careless and/or reckless in failing to make the basketball court safe for users and failing to warn people of the dangerous condition posed by certain aspects of the court, namely that the padding on the back wall was insufficient.

In addition to moving for summary judgment, LA Fitness sought to have Pratter exclude the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert, Steve Bernheim, a sports and recreation consultant, because the man’s testimony would be inadmissible due to the fact that he is unqualified to offer a medical or “biomechanical” opinion as to the cause of Jones’s injury, and because he failed to show that any single alleged defect of the basketball court rendered it inherently unsafe, according to the judicial memorandum.

The defendant further argued that even if the court admitted the witness’s testimony, the plaintiff has failed to prove “causation” sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment, because Jones has failed to prove that he would not have been injured absent the alleged defects.

On the first argument, Pratter noted that expert witness Bernheim’s opinion is not being offered to establish medical causation, but rather is being offered for the purpose of establishing that the basketball court was dangerous because it failed to conform to certain industry standards.

“The Court finds that Mr. Bernheim’s background as a consultant and expert in sports risk management and liability renders him qualified to offer an expert opinion as to whether the basketball court in question met certain industry standards, and, if not, in what respects,” Pratter wrote.

Attorneys for LA Fitness had argued that the standards cited by Bernheim are not relevant because they don’t regulate the specific basketball court in question under this case.

Pratter disagreed with the defense argument, writing that while the court recognizes that the cited standards don’t expressly specify that they apply to basketball courts located within health and fitness clubs, “the Court does not agree that theses standards are irrelevant.

“LA Fitness has not identified any competing standards, regulation, or source of information about the design of basketball courts that contradicts those relied on by Mr. Bernheim,” the judge wrote. “LA Fitness’s own expert, Charles Penza, evidently relied on similar texts in formulating his opposing opinion that the LA Fitness court conformed to all available standards and were therefore inherently safe.”

Pratter wrote that while she finds expert witness testimony is not strictly necessary in this case, “the Court nonetheless finds that Mr. Bernheim’s experience-based testimony regarding various industry standards for basketball courts might assist a jury in determining whether the LA Fitness court conformed to a reasonable standard of care.”

At the same time, the judge determined that Bernheim’s expert report letters and deposition that address the “cause” of Jones’s injury is too speculative to be admissible at trial.

The judge limited Bernheim’s testimony to his opinion regarding industry standards and rules for basketball courts, and whether the design and condition of the gym’s basketball court met those standards.

Pratter also shot down LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiff has thus far stated a plausible claim under which relief could be granted.

“LA Fitness has also argued that, because Mr. Jones is unable to prove that he would not have been injured if the end wall of the basketball court had been fully padded, Mr. Jones is therefore unable to establish the ‘causation’ element of his negligence action,” the memorandum reads. “Establishing a prima facie case of negligence, however, does not require Mr. Jones to prove the negative as posted by LA Fitness.”

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