Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Trial Court's Dismissal of Homeowners' Suit Against Contractor and Subcontractors

April 5, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled a general contractor and two subcontractors are not liable to the homeowners after a fire destroyed their partially completed home. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case based on insufficient evidence as to the cause of the fire.

In October 2011, Ewin and Janet Jenkins contracted with Big City Remodeling to construct a house in Sevier County. Big City Remodeling hired subcontractor Henson & Associates Flooring, Inc., who subcontracted with Julian Luu, doing business as Quality Hardwood Floors, to finish the hardwood flooring in the house.

On Halloween night of 2012, the Jenkins’ partially completed vacant house was destroyed by fire. Experts determined that the fire started on the back deck of the house, but they were unable to pinpoint the probable cause of the fire. The Jenkins filed suit in the Circuit Court for Sevier County against Big City Remodeling and the two flooring subcontractors alleging that their negligence caused the fire. The general contractor and flooring subcontractors filed motions for summary judgment asking the trial court to dismiss the case because the facts were not disputed and the defendants were entitled to a dismissal of the case as a matter of law. Circuit Court Judge O. Duane Slone granted the motions, determining that the Jenkins did not prove sufficient facts to infer that Big City Remodeling was negligent and that its negligence caused the fire. The trial court also held that the Jenkins were not able to prove that any negligence of the flooring subcontractors caused the fire.

The Jenkins appealed, and the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the evidence was not sufficient to prove that Big City Remodeling had exclusive control over the cause or any probable causes of the fire. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing the case against the subcontractors, finding there was sufficient proof of their negligence and that their negligence caused the fire for the case to proceed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In an opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, the Court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. Justice Lee wrote that the fatal flaw of the Jenkins’ case against Big City Remodeling and the flooring subcontractors was the Jenkins’ inability to submit sufficient evidence of the cause in fact of the fire. Despite the Jenkins’ best efforts, this required element of proof eluded them. Expert testimony established many possible causes of the fire but did not establish that any negligence of the general contractor or the flooring subcontractors was the probable cause of the fire.

The Court noted that the cause of the fire was unknown but apparently started on the back deck of the vacant house which was accessible to the public. Expert fire investigators could not pinpoint the probable cause of the fire and could not rule out arson, improperly discarded cigarette butts, electrical issues, and spontaneous combustion of rags used in finishing the floor as possible causes of the fire. The Court concluded that althoughBig City Remodeling had contractual control over the job site, it did not have exclusive control over the cause of the fire. For this reason, the Jenkins could not rely on the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which allows an inference of negligence. Further, the Court ruled that the Jenkins could not prove that any carelessness of the flooring subcontractors was the probable cause of the fire. For these reasons, the Court agreed with the trial court that the case should be dismissed.

To read the unanimous opinion, Ewin B. Jenkins et. al. v. Big City Remodeling et. al., authored by Justice Sharon Lee, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.