The Tennessee Supreme Court recently held that a contractor and subcontractor were not liable in a case where a partially constructed home burned, but the cause of the fire could not be pinpointed.
In Jenkins v. Big City Remodeling, No. E2014-01612-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. April 5, 2017), plaintiffs brought a negligence action against both the general contractor and flooring subcontractors who were building plaintiffs’ new home after the home was destroyed in a fire. Expert testimony established that the fire started on the back deck of the home, yet the specific cause could not be identified—“possible causes of the fire were arson, improperly discarded cigarettes, electrical issues, and spontaneous combustion of rags.” The deposition testimony in this case showed that the property was not fenced; that the back deck could have been accessed by any member of the public; that plaintiffs had had several construction workers on the property; and that the fire happened on Halloween, a time when “a lot of fires occur, including fires that are intentionally set.” Plaintiffs asserted that the subcontractors’ negligence caused the fire, as they had been seen smoking on the back deck before and they had been using rags to apply flammable flooring materials on the day of the fire, which could have caused the fire if disposed of in an improper manner. To prove the claim against the general contractor, plaintiffs planned to rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to infer negligence.