February 19, 2016
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.
Manion and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and Blakey, District Judge
Blakey, District Judge.
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.
& Procedural History
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. Pl.'s Resp.
Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 4.
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.
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.
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.
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.
28, 2012, Blasius picked up his Excursion and drove
approximately 200 miles back to his Michigan
home.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
written report-which accompanied Blasius' response to
AAI's summary judgment motionânoted 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 âdiesel fuel, power steering fluid, brake fluid,
motor oil, window washer fluid, and anti-freezeâ"can all
be ignited via hot engine and exhaust components."
Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ...