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Blasius v. Angel Automotive, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 12, 2016

James Blasius, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Angel Automotive, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued February 19, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 13-CV-00046-JVB-CAN - Joseph S. Van Bokkelen, Judge.

          Before Manion and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and Blakey, District Judge [*]

          Blakey, District Judge.

         In July 2009, Appellant James Blasius purchased a used 2005 Ford Excursion. In June 2012, Blasius entrusted Appellee Angel Automotive, Inc. ("AAI") with upgrading the vehicle to make it "safe" and "reliable." Blasius alleges that AAI negligently betrayed that trust when, one day and about 200 miles after pick up, the vehicle caught fire and was destroyed. The district court granted summary judgment for AAI after concluding that: (1) Blasius failed to present evidence that AAI's work proximately caused the fire; and (2) the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply. Blasius appealed. For the reasons explained below, the decision of the district court is REVERSED.

         Background & Procedural History

         In July 2009, Blasius, a resident of Michigan, purchased a used 2005 Ford Excursion for towing his motorcycle racing trailer. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 1; Blasius Dep. 19:1-7. Over the next three years, Blasius invested in approximately $70, 000 worth of parts, accessories, and modifications to the vehicle.[1] Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 4.

         In the summer of 2012, Blasius next contacted AAI, an automotive repair shop located in Elkhart, Indiana, to further improve the Excursion's performance. Blasius outlined several components he wanted inspected and improved and gave AAI an "open checkbook" for the repairs. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 8; Blasius Dep. 37:19-22. These components included, among others, the vehicle's engine, suspension, turbocharger, intake and exhaust manifolds, exhaust, transmission, brakes, spark plugs, and oil pump. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 8. AAI not only agreed to Blasius' requests, but also "gave the truck a complete once-over" and recommended additional modifications, which Blasius approved. Angel Dep. 14:2-3, 44:11-15.

         In June 2012, AAI mechanics Thomas Angel and Daniel Fine performed the desired work. Id. at 11:10-13; Fine Dep. 62:20-22. Due to the extent of Blasius' requested modifications, AAI first removed the Excursion's body from its chassis. Angel Dep. 14:2-22; Fine Dep. 43:14-15. This process involved disconnecting (and eventually reconnecting) the vehicle's various fluid transfer lines, including coolant lines, brake lines, and power steering hoses. Angel Dep. 15:11-15.

         After removing the vehicle body, AAI's overhaul included replacing the Excursion's fuel pump, auxiliary fuel filter, and fuel lines. Id. at 19:6-9, 19:23-20:3, 27:2-4, 43:11-20; Fine Dep. 23:18-20, 29:6-11, 36:22-37:2, 39:20-40:5. The new fuel lines ran from the fuel tank at the rear of the vehicle to the newly installed fuel pump, to an auxiliary fuel filter, and then finally to the topside of the driver's side of the engine. Angel Dep. 22:9-23:20. A return line was run out of the engine back to the fuel tank. Id. at 24:1-6.

         AAI originally promised to complete work by Thursday, June 21, 2012. Id. at 44:20-46:2; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 12. On June 20, 2012, however, AAI informed Blasius that the Excursion was not ready for pick up. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 12. Aware that Blasius desired to take the truck on an upcoming trip to northern Michigan, Angel promised Blasius that the vehicle would be available the following Thursday, June 28, 2012. Angel Dep. 45:1-3, 47:3-10. At his deposition, Angel testified that these circumstances created a "heightened sense of ur- gency" within AAI to complete the repairs. Id. at 48:9-16. Angel testified that, by the time AAI finished working on the Excursion, there was little additional work that could have been done to the vehicle. Id. at 46:24-47:2.

         On June 28, 2012, Blasius picked up his Excursion and drove approximately 200 miles back to his Michigan home.[2]Id. at 48:17-19; Blasius Dep. 44:17-19. Upon arrival, Blasius emailed AAI and complained of new or persisting issues with the vehicle's performance. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 13. Blasius described "limited pull off the line, " heavy exhaust smoke, and a "rattling or pinging or knocking" at low rpm's. Angel responded on the morning of June 29, 2012 and promised to resolve the issues, but did not discourage Blasius from driving the truck in the interim. Id.; Angel Dep. 51:12-18.

         Later on June 29, 2012, Blasius left his home in the Excursion with his motorcycle trailer in tow. Blasius Dep. 46:12-21. Blasius' adult son and his son's friend were passengers. Id. at 5:13-17. At his deposition, Blasius testified that, after traveling approximately 12 miles, Blasius' son observed smoke emanating from the vehicle's interior vents. Id. at 47:1-7. As a result, after approximately 30 seconds, Blasius began to pull over to the shoulder. Id. at 47:15-17. As Blasius looked in his review mirror, he observed additional smoke behind the vehicle. Id. at 47:18-23. Blasius also discovered that his parking, emergency, and trailer brakes were non-responsive. Id. at 48:6-49:15. Smoke billowed into the vehicle cabin as Blasius swerved on and off the shoulder in an attempt to slow the vehicle. Id. at 49:16-23.

         The Excursion eventually came to a stop after approximately three-quarters of a mile. Id. at 50:1-3. After escaping the vehicle, Blasius specifically observed burning diesel fuel running along the bottom and sides of the vehicle. Id. at 50:14-52:1. Blasius unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the fire with multiple fire extinguishers. Id. at 52:23-55:14. Sadly, by the time firefighters arrived, the vehicle was destroyed and the motorcycle trailer was damaged. Id. at 68:13-14; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 14.

         After the fire was finally extinguished, the Excursion was loaded onto a flatbed wrecker and taken to a nearby storage facility. Blasius Dep. 66:3-6. When Blasius notified Angel of the situation, Angel admitted to Blasius that he believed a fuel leak may have caused the fire. Id. at 55:1-5.

         Shortly thereafter, James Raad, a certified vehicle fire investigator, conducted an inspection of the vehicle remnants. Raad Aff. 1. Raad determined that the fire originated under the vehicle, but could not ascertain conclusive evidence of its exact cause. Id.

         On January 22, 2013, Blasius filed suit against AAI in the Northern District of Indiana for negligence and breach of contract. Compl., ECF No. 1. In July 2013, Blasius' own expert, Adam Hooker, inspected the disassembled remains of the vehicle, and rendered various conclusions about the cause of the fire. Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1. Among the conclusions in his report, Hooker found that the diesel and brake fluid systems (worked on during AAI's overhaul) were "more likely related to the cause of the fire" and the "diesel fuel or brake fluid" was the "first fuel(s) ignited during the progression of the fire." Id.

         On March 4, 2015, the district court granted AAI's motion for summary judgment. Op. and Order, ECF No. 68. In its ruling, the court found that Blasius "failed to present evidence showing that [AAI's] modification to the [Excursion] caused the fire." Id. at 5. Additionally, the court held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply. Id. at 6-7. Blasius challenges both aspects of the district court's ruling.

         Discussion

         We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Hotel 71 Mezz Lender LLC v. Nat'l Ret. Fund, 778 F.3d 593, 601 (7th Cir. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate only where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In making this determination, we view all evidence in the light most favorable to, and derive all reasonable inferences in favor of, the nonmoving party. Cairel v. Alderden, 821 F.3d 823, 830 (7th Cir. 2016). Summary judgment is warranted only if, after doing so, we determine that no jury could reasonably find in the nonmoving party's favor. McDonald v. Hardy, 821 F.3d 882, 888 (7th Cir. 2016).

         A. Proximate Cause

         Under Indiana law, proximate cause "is an essential element of a negligence action." Carson v. ALL Erection & Crane Rental Corp., 811 F.3d 993, 998 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Hassan v. Begley, 836 N.E.2d 303, 307 (Ind.Ct.App. 2005)).

Proximate cause in Indiana negligence law has two aspects. The first-causation in fact-is a factual inquiry for the jury. If the injury would not have occurred without the defendant's negligent act or omission, there is causation in fact. A second component of proximate cause is the scope of liability. That issue, which is also for the trier of fact, turns largely on whether the injury is a natural and probable consequence, which in the light of the circumstances, should have been foreseen or anticipated. Under this doctrine, liability may not be imposed on an original negligent actor who sets into motion a chain of events if the ultimate injury was not reasonably foreseeable as the natural and probable consequence of the act or omission.

City of Gary ex rel. King v. Smith & Wesson Corp., 801 N.E.2d 1222, 1243-44 (Ind. 2003) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Proximate cause "must be based upon provable facts and cannot be based upon mere guess, conjecture, surmise, possibility or speculation." Collins v. Am. Optometric Ass'n, 693 F.2d 636, 640 (7th Cir. 1982). In other words, the factual evidence supplied must reflect some "reasonable certainty or probability." Mr. Bults, Inc. v. Orlando, 990 N.E.2d 1, 5 (Ind.Ct.App. 2013).

         In support of its summary judgment ruling, the district court cited the "dearth of evidence" connecting Blasius' vehicle fire with AAI's repair work, and stated that "[h]ypothesis alone is not enough to subject [AAI] to liability." Op. and Order 5, ECF No. 68. Our review of the record, however, demands a different conclusion.

         Hooker's written report-which accompanied Blasius' response to AAI's summary judgment motion—noted the "extent of the disassembly work that Angel Automotive had to perform in order to install various upgraded components and to replace the fuel lines." Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1. According to Hooker, to achieve this requisite level of disassembly, numerous connections "had to be disconnected and reconnected." Id. Hooker's observations were confirmed by both Angel and Fine. Angel Dep. 14:2-22, 15:11-15; Fine Dep. 43:14-15. Hooker further noted that these connections "were located within numerous fluid moving systems within the vehicle" and that the fluids contained therein —diesel fuel, power steering fluid, brake fluid, motor oil, window washer fluid, and anti-freeze—"can all be ignited via hot engine and exhaust components." Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1.

         Hooker opined that these fluid systems "were all interacted with during the process of Angel Automotive completing their work, " and that the misalignment, forcing, cross-threading, over torqueing, or under torqueing of any fluid system connections "could lead to a leak that under the proper conditions ... would produce a fire." Id. Hooker concluded that, absent "documentation that the proper torque values were applied to all connections within the vehicle, the potential of a leak in one of these systems cannot be eliminated as a possible cause of this fire." Id. at 2.

         Hooker's report further concluded that the fire originated "in an area that encompasses the left rear portion of the engine compartment, the bulkhead area, and the area in between the transmission and the left side body and door panels." Id. at 2. The report highlighted that "the fuel lines lead- ing from the fuel tank to the fuel injection pump are located in this area/' as are the "brake system master cylinder and reservoir" -all of which were "manipulated and/or removed and reinstalled" during AAI's work on the vehicle. Id. According to Hooker, as noted above, these systems were "more likely related to the cause of the fire" and "diesel fuel or brake fluid" was the "first fuel(s) ignited during the progression of the fire." Id.

         The district court's ruling failed to address any portion of this written report. Instead, the court highlighted a selective, two-page portion of Hooker's 59-page deposition transcript in which Hooker did not pronounce, in response to certain questions, that the fire was "more likely than not" caused by AAI's repair work. Op. and Order 5, ECF No. 68. This under-inclusive analysis misconstrues Hooker's overall assessment.

         A comprehensive reading of Hooker's deposition, on the other hand, confirms that, time and again, his testimony reinforced the expert opinions set forth in his written report. During questioning, Hooker maintained that a fluid system leak constituted the "most likely scenario" for the June 29, 2012 fire. Hooker Dep. 45:13-46:1. He further agreed that "[b]ut for the removal and the manipulation and disassembly" of fluid transfer lines by AAI, the fire would not have occurred. Id. at 53:24-54:3.

         Admittedly, Hooker also noted some limits to his overall assessment. Hooker acknowledged, for example, that due to the delayed nature of his examination, he did not possess definitive proof of causation:

Q. In your expert opinion, what caused this fire?
A. I feel that this fire was caused by a possible leak in the fluid system that came in contact with a heated portion of the exhaust system.
Q. So is it your testimony that you were able to determine a cause of this fire?
A. No, I was not. I have no proof of that and that's why I did not.
Q. So it is not your expert opinion that the fire was caused by a leak in ...

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