Attorneys Douglas R. Bergeron and Clinton J. Woodfin obtained summary judgment last week for a contractor who was accused of negligence that caused a fire to a home under construction, resulting in a total loss. The homeowners appealed that judgment, and the Court of Appeals held that enough circumstantial evidence existed to allow the case to go to the jury, overturning the Trial Court. Bergeron and Woodfin completed a Rule 11 application for permission to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court accepted that request.
In a well drafted opinion by Justice Lee, the Supreme Court held that the Trial Court was correct –Doug and Clint had proven on behalf of their client that no genuine issues of material fact existed on the element of negligence involving cause in fact. The Trial Court’s decision granting summary judgment was affirmed. The plaintiffs had alleged and provided evidence that the contractors smoked incessantly and left oily rags on the jobsite, but none of these actions were found to be a cause of the fire. The cross examination of the plaintiffs’ experts conducted in part by Clint showed that the experts could not state with any probability that the circumstances the plaintiff alleged regarding the contractor’s conduct was the cause in fact of the fire. The Court pointed out, “Negligence, without cause in fact, is nothing.”
“I argued the case, but the Court’s opinion relied heavily on our brief,” Clint said. “Doug did a great job in the brief outlining for the Supreme Court the importance of proving each element of negligence. We cited case law dating back to 1927. It is always helpful when the Supreme Court gives an opinion that reminds all lawyers of the importance on focusing on all elements of a claim of negligence.”
The Court also provided some guidance on the application of res ipsa loquitor in fire loss cases and how that should be applied in future Tennessee litigation. Res ipsa loquitor (Latin for “the thing speaks for itself”) is an evidentiary principle that allows a plaintiff to use circumstantial evidence of negligence when direct evidence may be lacking. Certain elements must be proven before the principle can be used, including that the allegedly negligent party was in “exclusive control” of the instrumentality of the negligence.
None of the contractors were in exclusive control of the property in this case. The fire started outside the structure and the cause was “undetermined.”
Doug is a civil litigator and adviser to Spicer Rudstrom’s insurance clients. His practice is concentrated primarily in insurance tort defense, insurance coverage and bad faith, workers’ compensation and business and commercial representation. He is an associate in the firm’s Knoxville office.
Clint is the managing member of Spicer Rudstrom’s Knoxville office, a member of the firm’s board of directors and the chair of the firm’s trucking and transportation practice. He represents major corporations, insurance carriers, local businesses and individuals in all phases of litigation involving automobile liability, insurance defense, premises liability, real estate and employment practices, among others. He has achieved an AV-Preeminent rating from Martindale-Hubbell.
The opinion may be found here.