Murchison & Cumming LLP

Wildland Fire Litigation Team Gets Summary Judgment Affirmed by Court of Appeal in Favor of Hotel and Golf Course in Poinsettia Fire Case

September 19, 2018

Richard C. Moreno and Gina E. Och, members of the Wildland Fire Litigation practice group, secured a victory for their client, a hotel with a golf course on its property, who was sued by adjacent property owners and insurers affected by the Poinsettia Fire.

In 2014, a fire originated on a hotel’s golf course and spread to properties beyond the hotel and golf course. Plaintiffs sued the hotel for negligence, trespass, and nuisance. The hotel moved for summary judgment on the elements of duty and causation. The hotel argued that the it owed no duty to the other property owners to minimize fire hazards by restricting smoking and maintaining the native vegetation on the golf course, and the hotel's conduct was not the cause of their damages. The trial court granted the summary judgment motion. A subrogation plaintiff appealed.

Recently, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the hotel. Without deciding the issue of duty, the appellate court concluded that the hotel met its burden on summary judgment of showing plaintiff could not establish the causation element of its claims of negligence, trespass, and nuisance, and plaintiff failed to meet its corresponding burden of establishing there was a triable issue of material fact as to causation.

Plaintiff offered several theories on the element of causation. Initially, plaintiff argued the hotel caused its damages by permitting smoking on its golf course or by using combustion-engine maintenance and beverage carts not equipped with spark arrestors. However, all fire cause and origin investigators, including the Fire Department’s fire investigator and plaintiff’s own experts, agreed the cause of the fire was undetermined. Moreover, plaintiff’s causation expert’s testimony characterized the embers and exhaust particles from either alleged instrumentality as only possible causes, not probable causes, meaning neither was more likely than not the cause of the fire.

Alternatively, plaintiff argued the hotel caused its damages by failing to adequately irrigate and maintain the native areas at or surrounding the golf course to reduce the likelihood of the fire spreading from the golf course to the adjacent properties. However, plaintiff’s fire fuels management expert conceded that, had the hotel done everything the expert recommended to maintain the native areas, there was a high likelihood a lit cigarette dropped in the same area under the same conditions would have still caused a fire to start and spread. In other words, if the same result would have occurred regardless of the hotel’s conduct, then its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s damages.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of the hotel.

 

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