An expert witness in a campus assault lawsuit properly relied on “aspirational” industry guidelines to form an opinion that a college fell short of the appropriate standard of care in its campus-security practices, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
In reversing the trial court’s exclusion of the expert’s testimony, the Circuit Court said that, although the campus-security standards published by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators are only aspirational practices and not a formal industry standard, the expert could rely on them in forming his opinion.
“The standards represent an authoritative statement by premises-security professionals regarding recommended practices in the field of campus security,” the court explained, “and that is sufficient to satisfy the Rule 702 requirement of reliability.”
Defining the Standard of Care
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a former student at Carthage College in Kenosha, WI. Alleging that she was assaulted in her dorm room by two men she believed to be Carthage students, the woman sued the college for negligence.
A key element of her lawsuit was to establish the standard of care that Carthage should have followed regarding campus security. To do this, the plaintiff sought to introduce the opinion of Dr. D. Kennedy, a premises-security expert.
Dr. Kennedy was prepared to testify that there were numerous security deficiencies at Carthage, that there was a history of assaults at the school, and that Carthage fell short of the recommended practices in the field of campus security.
Carthage, contending that the methodology used by the expert to reach his opinions was unreliable, filed a motion asking the district court to exclude his testimony. The district judge granted the motion, concluding that the testimony was inadmissible because the expert had relied on industry standards that were only aspirational and that failed to account for variations between different academic environments.
With the expert excluded, the plaintiff lacked the evidence necessary to prove her claim. For that reason, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of Carthage.
Reliability of the Expert’s Methodology
In its review of the case on appeal, the 7th Circuit focused on whether the expert had followed a reliable methodology in reaching his conclusions and reliably applied it to the specific facts of this case.
With regard to the expert’s use of the IACLEA guidelines, the circuit panel said that there is no question that the guidelines do not, of themselves, establish the standard of care. “As the district court noted, they are only aspirational practices, not a formal industry standard,” the court said, adding that even formal industry standards would not be dispositive as to negligence liability.
“But the question to be answered for admissibility purposes is not whether the IACLEA guidelines are controlling in the sense of an industry code, or even how persuasive they are,” the court continued. “It is only whether consulting them is a methodologically sound practice on which to base an expert opinion in the context of this case.”
Here, it was appropriate for the expert to rely on these guidelines in forming his opinion, the court concluded, because they are an authoritative set of recommended practices specific to the field of campus security and are regularly consulted by campus security professionals.
While Carthage would have been free to argue that the guidelines were not persuasive in defining the standard of care, the court added, “that argument goes to the weight of the expert’s testimony, not its admissibility.”
An Earlier Case Distinguished
Carthage argued that an earlier case, Varner v. District of Columbia, 891 A.2d 260 (D.C. 2006), required a ruling in its favor insofar as it had “specifically rejected the use of the IACLEA recommendation as ‘standards’ for residence hall security.” But the 7th Circuit distinguished that case as having considered the IACLEA standards only with regard to the sufficiency of the evidence at summary judgment, not as they related to the admissibility of expert testimony.
“Varner did not hold that the testimony of the expert in question was inadmissible because of his reliance on the IACLEA standards,” the court explained. “Indeed, the admissibility of various pieces of expert testimony was not at issue in Varner—only whether the content of that testimony sufficed to overcome summary judgment under local negligence standards.”
Concluding that the expert’s testimony should have been admitted at trial, the 7th Circuit vacated the summary judgment in favor of Carthage and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
The opinion, Lees v. Carthage College, was written by Circuit Judge Diane S. Sykes, who was joined by Circuit Judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Daniel A. Manion.