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Tennessee Supreme Court Finds General Contractor Not Responsible for Fire Under Res Ipsa Loquitur Theory Without Exclusive Control of Area

Posted on Jun 25 2017 2:42PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently issued an interesting opinion in a case involving a fire which caused a loss to a partially completed house. In this case, Ewin B. Jenkins v. Big City Remodeling, et al, No. E2014-01612-SC-R11-CV, 515 S.W.3d 843 (Tenn. 2017), the Court dealt with a situation where the Plaintiff’s hired a general contractor to construct a house. The general contractor subcontracted the hardwood flooring work to another contractor, which in turn subcontracted the job to another subcontractor. On October 31, 2012, the partially completed house and everything in the house were destroyed by a fire. The legal theory used by the plaintiffs against the general contractor was the theory of res ipsa loquituur to try to establish an inference of negligence on the general contractor.

 

The Tennessee Supreme Court noted that due to the fact the Plaintiffs lacked direct proof of the general contractor’s negligence, they relied upon the evidentiary principle of res ipsa loquitor to establish an inference of negligence. The phrase “res ipsa loquitur” is a Latin phrase meaning “the thing speaks for itself”. The classic case where the res ipsa loquitur doctrine was first referenced is a 19th Century English case, Byrne v. Boadle, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (1863). In that case, a barrel of flour rolled out of a window of a warehouse and fell on a passing pedestrian. The pedestrian could not point to any specific negligent actions on behalf of the warehouse owner that actually caused the barrel of flour to hit the pedestrian.  However, the plaintiff successfully argued that this was the kind of event that would not happen without the negligence of the warehouse owner. As a result, the plaintiff in that case was successful under this theory.

 

In the Jenkins case at issue, the Tennessee Supreme Court analyzed the res ipsa loquitur doctrine in detail. In order to establish res ipsa loquitur in Tennessee, a plaintiff must show that “(a) the event that caused the injury is of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence; (b) other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence; and (c) the negligence is within the scope of the defendant's duty to the plaintiff.” Jenkins at 849. The Tennessee Supreme Court noted that res ipsa loquitur has been applied in fire loss cases in Tennessee and in other jurisdictions when the exact cause of the fire is not known. However, in those cases, the defendant had “exclusive control over the premises or the instrumentality that cause the fire.” Jenkins at 849. That is the key issue in the Jenkins case.

 

In the Jenkins case, the Court found the Plaintiff simply did not...

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TAGS: Negligence, Torts, Tennessee Premises Liability Comments [0]
  
 
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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E-mail: jlee@burrowlee.com

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