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Lopez v. Riley

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 3, 2019

WILDA LOPEZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DAL RILEY, Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          GEORGE Z. SINGAL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22). For reasons explained herein, the Court GRANTS the Motion.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Generally, a party is entitled to summary judgment if, on the record before the Court, it appears “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). An issue is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. A “material fact” is one that has “the potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.” Nereida-Gonzalez v. Tirado-Delgado, 990 F.2d 701, 703 (1st Cir. 1993).

         The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). In determining whether this burden is met, the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. See Santoni v. Potter, 369 F.3d 594, 598 (1st Cir. 2004).

         Once the moving party has made this preliminary showing, the nonmoving party must “produce specific facts, in suitable evidentiary form, to establish the presence of a trialworthy issue.” Triangle Trading Co., Inc. v. Robroy Indus., Inc., 200 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1999) (quotation marks and internal ellipsis omitted); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). “Mere allegations, or conjecture unsupported in the record, are insufficient.” Barros-Villahermosa v. United States, 642 F.3d 56, 58 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Rivera-Marcano v. Normeat Royal Dane Quality A/S, 998 F.2d 34, 37 (1st Cir. 1993)); see also Wilson v. Moulison N. Corp., 639 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2011) (“A properly supported summary judgment motion cannot be defeated by conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, periphrastic circumlocutions, or rank speculation.”). “As to any essential factual element of its claim on which the nonmovant would bear the burden of proof at trial, its failure to come forward with sufficient evidence to generate a trialworthy issue warrants summary judgment for the moving party.” In re Ralar Distribs., Inc., 4 F.3d 62, 67 (1st Cir. 1993). “However, summary judgment is improper when the record is sufficiently open-ended to permit a rational factfinder to resolve a material factual dispute in favor of either side.” Morales-Melecio v. United States (Dep't of Health and Human Servs.), 890 F.3d 361, 368 (1st Cir. 2018) (quotation marks omitted).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Defendant Dal Riley holds a propane and natural gas technician's license in Maine, and previously held a propane and natural gas technician's license in New Hampshire. He has also previously worked as a gas technician in New Hampshire. Between approximately 2014 and 2017, Riley owned a three-unit residential property located at 16 Sunk Haze Road, Union, Maine (hereinafter, the “Riley Property”). In the winter of 2016, Riley, along with one of his tenants, Robert Boynton, were renovating the Riley Property. As part of those renovations, they operated a temporary propane heater that Boynton had acquired from another individual.

         Although Riley had been staying in a camper parked at the Riley Property while working on the renovations, on the evening of January 13, 2016, Riley departed for his camp in New Hampshire. He left the temporary propane heater, which that had been installed by Amerigas earlier that week, in operation at the Riley Property, which was unoccupied.[1] On January 14, 2016, an explosion and fire occurred at the Riley property. At the time, Plaintiffs Wilda Lopez, Darrell Moody, and Joel Wentworth owned adjacent properties that were damaged following the explosion.

         The fire was investigated by the State Fire Marshals' office. Investigator Mary-Ann MacMaster conducted interviews and investigated the site following the explosion on behalf of the Fire Marshals' office. Ultimately, she was not able to determine with the requisite level of certainty the cause, origin, or location of the apparent propane leak, nor was she able to determine the sequence of events that led to any propane leak at the Riley Property.

         Lopez, Moody, and Wentworth have little or no direct personal knowledge of the sequence of events leading to the explosion that occurred at the Riley Property on January 14, 2016. Nonetheless, on January 12, 2018, Lopez, Moody, and Wentworth filed the pending Complaint (ECF No. 1) claiming that Riley was liable for their damages under both theories of negligence and strict liability.

         During the course of discovery, Plaintiffs designated Kurt Ruchala, P.E., as their liability expert on the 2016 explosion at the Riley Property. Ruchala concluded that the sequence of events that led to any propane leak at the Riley Property on or about January 13-14, 2016 cannot be determined. Likewise, he has concluded that the cause, source, and location of any propane leak at the Riley Property on or about January 13-14, 2016 cannot be determined.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendant points to a lack of trialworthy evidence on proximate cause as grounds for summary judgment on both of Plaintiffs' claims. “An essential element of a claim for negligence is that the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's harm.” Darney v. Dragon Prod. Co., LLC, 771 F.Supp.2d 91, 117 (D. Me. 2011). Here, the Court agrees that Plaintiffs have failed to put forward any evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that their damages were proximately caused by Riley breaching his duty of care. Most notably, both designated experts have testified that the cause, origin, and location of any propane leak cannot be determined.[2] Thus, even viewing the record in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs. Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' negligence claim. See Estate of Smithv. Salvesen, 143 A.3d 780, 786 (Me. 2016) (“If, however, there is so little evidence tending to show that the defendant's acts or omissions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries that the jury would have to engage in conjecture or speculation in order to return a verdict for the plaintiff, then the defendant is entitled to summary judgment.”); Durham v. HTH Corp., 870 A.2d 577, 579 n.2 (Me. 2005) (affirming a grant of summary judgment & noting a “lack of evidence with regard to causation” where the plaintiff did not know what caused her fall and there was “no other evidence” ...


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