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Yearty v. Scott Holder Enterprises, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

March 14, 2019


          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          McMillian, Judge.

         After Darla J. Yearty badly burned her hand in a kitchen fire, she sued Scott Holder Enterprises ("Holder Enterprises") for installing an allegedly defective smoke detector alarm system that she contends failed to alert her soon enough to the fire. After the trial court granted summary to Holder Enterprises, Yearty appealed, asserting that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether Holder Enterprises's negligence was the proximate cause of her injuries. Because this case presents the relatively rare situation where the plaintiff cannot show that the defendant's alleged negligence was the cause in fact, much less, the proximate cause of her injuries, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment.

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party can "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law[.]" OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). A defendant is entitled to obtain summary judgment "by showing an absence of evidence supporting at least one essential element of the plaintiff's claim." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Pham v. Black, 347 Ga.App. 585, 586 (820 S.E.2d 209) (2018). However, "[t]he defendant does not need to affirmatively disprove the plaintiff's case, but may prevail simply by pointing to the lack of evidence. If the defendant does so, the plaintiff cannot rest on his pleadings, but must point to specific evidence that gives rise to a triable issue of fact." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Meadows v. Diverse Power, Inc., 296 Ga.App. 671, 671 (675 S.E.2d 571) (2009). "We review a grant or denial of summary judgment de novo and construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Med. Center of Central Ga., Inc. v. Macon Health Center, Inc., 345 Ga.App. 879, 880 (815 S.E.2d 199) (2018).

         So viewed, the evidence[1] demonstrates that in August 2007, Holder Enterprises installed a security system and smoke monitoring system in Yearty's home. According to Yearty, she did not talk with Holder Enterprises about "any type of specifics" about the system but "hired [the company] to put systems in to protect . . . me and my children in my house." During the first several months after the system was installed, Yearty complained to Holder Enterprises that the system was not working and someone from the company "came to [her] house ten, twelve, fourteen times, trying to fix the system so that it would work." The last time a Holder Enterprises employee worked on the system before the fire was in November 2007, [2]and after spending "the day [at Yearty's home, the worker] called [her] and said that he had resolved all of the issues; he had done the call-in with the service and that everything responded and that he was through."

         Yearty testified that on the evening of August 18, 2008, she received a phone call while she was frying chicken on the stove. After completing her phone call, she checked on the chicken and turned the chicken pieces over to continue cooking. She then sat on the sofa and "nodded off." She estimated that she was asleep about three to four minutes, when she awoke to the smell of smoke. Because of the smoke, she could not tell if it was the pan that was burning or the chicken, but she recalled from her fire safety training that water should not be used to extinguish a grease fire. Yearty could not reach the baking soda that she kept in a cabinet over the microwave because of the heat from the fire, so she instead poured flour on the pan.[3] According to Yearty, because of the smoke, she

couldn't see the knob at the moment, to just turn [the stove] off . . . I was really scared to put my hands up under there, but I knew I didn't have a choice. So . . . I took [one] hand to turn the knob off[, ] which was right beside the pot. [The other] hand, I had the top, trying to simultaneously put the top on the pan and turn the knob off; and it was just like lava. It just bubbled over. And it bubbled on my right hand, which was turning the knob off.

         Yearty's right hand was severely burned in the incident. Approximately, two years after the incident, in July 2010, Yearty had the smoke alarm system evaluated by a different security company, which determined that a card to activate the system was missing.

         Yearty filed a complaint for personal injuries and damages, and Holder Enterprises answered, denied liability, and subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment.[4] In granting summary judgment to Holder Enterprises, the trial court determined that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to proximate cause, and thus the company was not liable in negligence for Yearty's injuries as a matter of law. The trial court found that Yearty

failed to present any fact to establish [Holder Enterprises's] negligence was the proximate cause of her injuries. Specifically, [Yearty] failed to show that [Holder Enterprises] should have foreseen the actions taken by [Yearty] that resulted in her injuries. [Yearty] was injured neither by the alleged breach of the duty related to the installation, maintenance, or operation of the System nor by its failure to alert her to the grease fire on her stove. [Yearty] was injured when she voluntarily undertook to extinguish the grease fire in her kitchen by dumping flour in the pan, covering the pan with a lid, and then removing the pan from the burner.

         On appeal, Yearty asserts that had Holder Enterprises properly installed the smoke detector she would have awoken earlier when there was a minimal amount of smoke, thus allowing her "an opportunity to go to the stove and turn off whatever was burning, and that would have kept [her] hand from getting burned." She further argues that it was foreseeable that she would suffer an injury without a properly functioning smoke detector and that Holder's failure to correctly install the system was the primary factor in causing her injury.

         "It is well established that to recover for injuries caused by another's negligence, a plaintiff must show four elements: a duty, a breach of that duty, causation[, ] and damages." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Johnson v. American Nat. Red Cross, 276 Ga. 270, 272 (578 S.E.2d 106) (2003). Causation is further broken down into two elements: cause in fact and proximate cause. City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, 301 Ga. 257, 258 (1) (800 S.E.2d 573) (2017) ("A plaintiff must prove that the defendant's negligence was both the 'cause in fact' and the 'proximate cause' of the injury.").

         Turning first to the question of cause in fact, in order to show that a defendant's negligence is a cause in fact of a plaintiff's injuries, "[the] plaintiff ordinarily must prove that, but for this conduct, he would not have sustained the injury. (Citation omitted.) Strength v. Lovett, 311 Ga.App. 35, 43-44 (2) (b) (714 S.E.2d 723) (2011). In other words, "[t]he defendant's conduct is not a cause of the event, if the event would have occurred without it." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Id. at 44 (2) (b). Here, the fire started as a result of Yearty's leaving chicken frying in hot oil on her stove while she fell asleep. Even assuming for purposes of summary judgment that the smoke detector was defectively installed, Yearty has pointed to no evidence, beyond her own bare assertion at her deposition, that a working smoke detector would have alerted her any sooner to the fire, much less that it would have alerted her at a sufficiently early interval to have allowed her to use her bare hand to turn off the stove without danger.[5] Without any supporting factual evidence, Yearty's testimony in this regard is merely conjecture or speculation, thus giving the jury no basis on which to render a verdict in her favor.

         "As we have held, no inference of fact may be drawn from a premise which is wholly uncertain." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Ogletree v. Navistar Intl.Transp. Corp., 245 Ga.App. 1, ...

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