Establishing Proximate Cause Where Both Roads Lead to the Defendant

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In Westfield Ins. Group v. Pure Renovations, LLC, 2019-Ohio-4773, 2019 Ohio App. LEXIS 4829, the Court of Appeals of Ohio considered whether the lower court properly granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion. In its motion, the defendant argued that the plaintiff could not prove that the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of the fire at issue because the plaintiff’s liability expert identified two possible causes of the fire. The Court of Appeals, finding issues of fact remain as to whether the defendant was solely responsible for both possible causes, reversed the summary judgment ruling. This case establishes that, in Ohio, if all likely causes implicate solely the defendant’s alleged negligent conduct, a plaintiff’s inability to identify, definitively, one cause of a loss does not necessarily preclude the plaintiff from establishing proximate cause.

In Pure Renovations, the plaintiff’s insured entered into a contract with the defendant to perform renovations on her home. At some point during the renovations, the defendant’s employees began piling construction debris in the garage. About one month into the renovation project, a fire occurred in the garage, in the immediate area of the construction debris. The plaintiff’s investigation revealed that the defendant’s employees were smokers and may have smoked in or near the garage. The investigation also indicated that the defendant’s employee may have stored staining byproducts in the garage. The plaintiff’s expert fire investigator placed the area of fire origin in one corner of the garage, but identified two possible causes of fire: (1) careless smoking materials by the defendant’s employees; or (2) spontaneous combustion of rags discarded by defendant’s employees. As the homeowner’s insurance carrier for the property, the plaintiff issued payments to the insured to repair the fire damage. The plaintiff then filed a subrogation action against the defendant.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on grounds that the plaintiff could not prove proximate cause since the cause of the fire was undetermined. The trial court granted the summary judgment motion and the plaintiff appealed the decision.

The Court of Appeals recognized that proximate cause requires that the injury sustained be the natural and probable consequence of the alleged negligence. The court noted that a defendant’s conduct is deemed the cause of the harm if the event would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. The court held that the plaintiff can establish proximate cause if it proves that both of the two possible causes of the fire were solely the result of the defendant’s negligent conduct. The court reversed the lower court’s summary judgment ruling, holding that there were material issues of fact as to whether the defendant’s employees were responsible for both possible fire causes.

The Pure Renovations decision establishes that, in Ohio, a plaintiff may be able to prove proximate cause when there is more than one possible cause of a loss if all possible causes implicate the defendant’s conduct. Thus, subrogation professionals handling matters in Ohio need to consider this decision when evaluating the recovery potential of losses.

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