In Jenkins v. Big City Remodeling, No. E2014-01612-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015), plaintiffs had hired defendant general contractor to construct a home for them. General contractor, in turn, had hired defendant flooring subcontractor for the project. When the home was almost complete, it caught fire and resulted in a total loss. Plaintiffs sued the general contractor and subcontractor for negligence, including negligence based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The trial court granted summary judgment to all defendants. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment as to the general contractor but reversed as to the claim of negligence against the flooring subcontractor.
The facts established that the day before the fire, the owners had been in the home, and they had retained a key during construction. Further, the construction site was not fenced or otherwise blocked from public access. When the fire occurred, one of the only remaining projects was to stain the wood floors in the home. On the day of the fire, several subcontractors had been working on the house, including Julian Luu, who was working on the floor stain. Based on camera footage from a neighboring property, Mr. Luu was the last person to leave the property at around 6:10 p.m., and the fire started around 7:50 p.m.
Plaintiffs’ theory was that the flooring subcontractors, who had been known to smoke a lot on the site, “allowed flammable rags to remain on or near the exterior deck and also smoked cigarettes in the area.” Plaintiffs claimed that “the improper disposal of cigarette butts resulted in the stain-soaked rags igniting, causing the fire.” Although the fire destroyed any evidence of rags, buckets with staining rags and cigarette butts were found in a dumpster on the property. Plaintiffs’ expert testified that “he believed the fire began on the exterior deck,” but the expert admitted that he could not be certain and that he could not conclusively rule out arson or electrical problems.