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Tom and Garnett Huff v. Steve Huff

March 22, 2012

TOM AND GARNETT HUFF, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
STEVE HUFF, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Civil Part, Cumberland County, Docket No. L-711-09.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 5, 2012

Before Judges Parrillo and Grall.

This matter arises out of a fire that occurred on February 5, 2009, at the property of plaintiffs Tom and Garnett Huff, husband and wife, in Stow Creek Township. Plaintiffs' three-bayed garage burnt to the ground along with its contents. The fire originated within the cab of a commercial diesel dump truck owned by the couple's son, defendant Steve Huff, that was parked in the garage alongside plaintiffs' dump truck and that of another individual. Plaintiffs sued defendant in negligence, alleging that defendant's failure to maintain his vehicle led to the fire and resultant damage. Following discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment, which the motion judge granted and from which plaintiffs now appeal.*fn1 We affirm.

The facts viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), are as follows. Defendant is a professional truck driver who owns his own trucking company. He uses one heavy-duty dump truck for his business, a 1989 Ford L-9000 with a Caterpillar diesel engine. The Ford Motor Company manufactured the wiring harness. The harness contains the wires that travel throughout the vehicle controlling accessories. The wires ran throughout defendant's truck, under the dashboard, and eventually connected to a circuit breaker on top of the dashboard on the passenger side. Back in November 2008, while defendant was sitting in his truck, smoke began coming out of the circuit breaker box, which is located on the passenger side dashboard in the cab, and was repaired by Paul Italiano, the mechanic who serviced defendant's truck for many years.

Located very near and below the circuit breaker box is the truck's heating and air conditioning unit. Some months prior to the fire, defendant heard a squealing noise in the heater blower fan. When the truck was last serviced by Italiano on January 23, 2009, for replacement of the air dryer cartridge, defendant told the mechanic about the "squealing" sound, which Italiano did not personally experience. Nevertheless, Italiano explained that motors and blower fans in dump trucks tend to clog with dirt and dust and that this blockage prevents the fan from moving, causing the blower fan motor to become hot. Despite this advice, defendant never replaced the blower fan.

On the morning of February 5, 2009, as was his usual routine, defendant went to his parents' house for breakfast and to pick up his truck from the garage where it was stored. Defendant and his mother went into the garage to get the trucks ready. Defendant first unplugged his truck engine's block heater that had been plugged into the electrical supply overnight to keep the engine warm. Garnett then started her son's truck and let it idle while defendant opened the bay doors. Defendant went into his truck and turned the heater on low, then returned to the house for a few minutes to finish getting ready.

While defendant's truck was warming up, his father went out to the garage to start his own truck at approximately 6:25 a.m. He walked around defendant's idling truck and checked the tires. Everything appeared to be fine. He left the garage after about five minutes. Defendant returned to the garage at around 6:35 a.m., accompanied by his mother. At that time, he saw smoke coming out of the window of his truck. He immediately opened the driver's side door, and saw flames, approximately a foot high, covering the area from the passenger side to the middle of the dashboard area. Defendant drove his father's truck out of the garage at his mother's insistence, while Garnett went into the house and called the fire department. The fire spread from the interior of the cab of defendant's truck and caused significant damage to both the garage as well as to the other dump truck stored there.

Lieutenant Donald Sims of the Bridgeton Fire Department responded to the scene at 7:04 a.m., along with Battalion Chief Todd Bowen, who was there to investigate the cause of the fire.

Chief Bowen noted there were "high amounts of flame damage to both vehicles left in the barn. . . . Nearly all items in the barn were destroyed beyond repair." He concluded:

The vehicles were in the [garage] overnight, plugged into wall receptacles using heavy duty extension cords. The problem only arose after the truck was started in the morning and the engine was running. The area of origin for this fire is the passenger side front dash area, in the region of the heater/air conditioning unit. The exact cause could not be determined by this investigator, but is possibly a malfunction in one of the vehicle's electrical or mechanical systems.

Bowen ultimately determined the fire to be accidental in nature, but could not state whether negligence was involved as his job was limited to "origin and cause only." An investigator hired by Allstate reached a similar conclusion: "[T]he fire originated on the interior of Steve Huff's truck; and was most likely accidental in causation, the result of an unspecified failure within the vehicle's heating system."

As noted, following discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment, maintaining that plaintiffs' negligence claim fails for want of expert testimony as to the cause of the fire. Plaintiffs countered that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies here to render the evidence adequate for jury resolution. In granting summary judgment dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint, the judge concluded that plaintiffs had not satisfied all the requirements for application of the doctrine and that, in any event, expert testimony is necessary to establish causation, noting "[t]his is a complex electrical and mechanical device that allegedly caused the fire. There ...


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