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Alcala v. Marriott International, Inc.: The Iowa Supreme Court on Negligent Training, Conflicting Standard of Care Experts, and the Proper Role of the Jury

Appellate Law, Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.L.C.

Alcala v. Marriott International, Inc., et. al.

In addition to clarifying that most jury instructions are reviewed for corrections of error at law, the Iowa Supreme Court in Alcala v. Marriott International, Inc., et. al. addressed two issues of interest to both lawyers and businesses: (1) when a jury instruction on negligent training is warranted and (2) the proper role of the jury when there is conflicting expert testimony regarding the applicability of safety standards.

In January, 2010, Brenda Alcala was a guest at the Courtyard by Marriot in Bettendorf, Iowa. She was in town on business, working just a few blocks from the hotel. Three days after checking in, she slipped and fell as she exited the hotel to leave for her client’s office. The fall broke her ankle. “In January 2012, Alcala filed suit against [Marriot], alleging Marriot negligently caused her injuries because it allowed ice to accumulate on its outdoor walkways, failed to maintain safe premises, failed to properly train their employees responsible for addressing icy sidewalks, and failed to warn guests of the dangerous condition.” The case proceeded to trial, and the jury returned a general verdict in favor of Alcala, finding Marriot 98 percent at fault and awarding Alcala damages of $1.2 million.

Negligent Training

Whether Marriott employees received proper training regarding sidewalk maintenance and deicing protocol was a fighting issue at trial. The evidence centered on Marriott’s employee training and its protocol to address sidewalk maintenance and deicing. For example, the employee responsible for deicing the sidewalk prior to Alcala’s fall testified. She testified regarding the general protocol for deicing sidewalks, the relevant training she had received, and the training she had not received, e.g., she was never taught the length of time deicer would remain effective. The court also received a maintenance checklist as an exhibit, and a hotel manager testified about the employees’ use of the checklist. However, no expert or lay testimony was offered regarding the standard applicable to training employees on sidewalk maintenance and deicing protocol. Moreover, no one testified that Marriott had failed to meet that standard in this case.

Marriott argued that there was not sufficient evidence to submit the issue of negligent training to the jury. Alcala argued that the jury should be allowed to “connect the dots” to find that “there was ice on the sidewalk; therefore, [the employee] did not apply deicer properly; therefore, Marriot did not train her properly.” Based on the employee’s testimony regarding the training employees received, the district court submitted the negligent training issue to the jury. The Iowa Supreme Court declined to adopt this position, however. The Court noted, “[i]f that is sufficient, then going forward, employers could be sued for negligent training whenever there is an avoidable accident.”

Instead, the Supreme Court held the negligent training instruction was given in error. The Court explained “[i]t is axiomatic that proof of the applicable standard of care and its breach are required to recover in tort.” The Court found that Alcala had introduced no evidence of the relevant training standard or how Marriott breached that standard. The jury returned a general verdict, so it was not possible to determine which grounds of fault Alcala proved. Because the issue of negligent training was improperly submitted, a new trial was required.

Private Safety Standards

At trial, Alcala’s expert did testify about the “industry standards” of sidewalk slip-and-fall resistance and “industry standards” relating to snow and ice removal protocols. The particular standards were voluntary standards. The standards Alcala’s expert testified to were not binding, industry-wide standards. Despite that fact, Alcala’s expert opined that the standards were applicable to the case at bar. Marriott’s expert also testified to the standards and opined the standards were not applicable here.

In its instructions, the court quoted the standards and instructed the jury that it “may consider a violation of these standards as evidence of negligence.” Because of the conflicting testimony on the standards’ applicability, Marriott argued it was error to instruct the jury that failure to adhere to the standards was evidence of negligence. The Supreme Court found that the district court’s instruction usurped the jury’s function. “When experts disagree [about the applicability of two competing industry standards], the jury should be instructed to decide whether the standard applies.”

Applied to the facts of Alcala, given the conflicting expert testimony on the applicability of the standards, the jury should have first been instructed that it must decide whether the standards applied. If the jury determined the standards applied, the jury could decide whether those standards had been violated. The Supreme Court held that the challenged instruction was given in error and a new trial was required.

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