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Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. Help U Move, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

July 16, 2015

HELP U MOVE, LLC, d/b/a HELP U MOVE, INC., and PHYLLIS H. BAKER, Defendants.


ELIZABETH K. DILLON, District Judge.

On April 11, 2013, defendant Phyllis H. Baker, [1] with the assistance of defendant Help U Move, LLC, moved her belongings into a new apartment at The Village at Orchard Ridge, a multi-unit assisted-living community in Winchester, Virginia. That night, roughly two hours after she and the movers had left for the day, two cardboard boxes lying on the stove caught fire. Though small, the fire set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system. The water extinguished the fire but damaged the apartment and surrounding area.

Orchard Ridge's insurer, plaintiff Hartford Fire Insurance Company, paid more than $290, 000 to repair the water damage. Seeking to recover that money as Orchard Ridge's subrogee, Hartford brings this action against Baker and Help U Move, alleging that they were negligent and that their negligence caused the fire. Baker now moves for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, contending that there is no evidence that she was negligent, much less that her negligence caused the fire.

For the following reasons, the court holds that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that Baker is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. It will therefore grant her motion and enter judgment in her favor.


A. Baker decides to move to Orchard Ridge.

In or around 2013, after the death of her husband, Baker, then in her early 80s, decided to sell her longtime home in Winchester and move into an assisted-living community. (Dkt. No. 48, Baker's Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 2; Dkt. No. 48-4, Baker Dep. 6, 12, May 7, 2015.)[2] She ultimately settled on Orchard Ridge, a then-new assisted-living community comprising a main building and 50-plus smaller buildings. (Dkt. No. 48-1, Bradshaw Dep. 13-14, May 13, 2015.) The main building contains 127 apartments divided into seven areas (A through G). (Id. at 14, 16.) Baker selected a one-bedroom apartment (Unit 335) in Area E and put down a deposit. (Id. at 15, 48.)

At the time of Baker's decision, some of the areas in the main building were occupied but others-including Area E-were still in various stages of construction. (Id. at 13, 23.) Howard Shockey & Sons, Inc., was the general contractor, and ARCH Consultants, Ltd., was the project manager. (Id. at 24.) An estimated 500 workers were on site when construction was in full swing. (Id. at 26.)

B. Help U Move packs and moves Baker's belongings to Orchard Ridge.

Sometime in early 2013, Baker hired Help U Move, a moving company based in Winchester (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶ 2), to pack and move her belongings from her house to Orchard Ridge. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 15.) Orchard Ridge initially told Baker that her move-in date would be April 11, 2013, and so she arranged to have Help U Move pack and move her belongings to Unit 335 on or around that date. (Id. at 15-16, 22.) Sometime before April 11, though, Orchard Ridge informed Baker that she could not move in on that date because it had not yet received a certificate of occupancy for the unit. (Dkt. No. 48-1 at 29-30, 36.) But after receiving "verbal approval" from the fire marshal, Orchard Ridge agreed to "provide [Baker] access [on April 11] to put her boxes and her possessions in the unit prior to her moving in." (Id. at 34; see also Dkt. No. 48-4 at 22.)

So on April 10, two or more Help U Move employees arrived at Baker's house to pack her belongings and load them onto a truck. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 17-19.) The employees "packed all the big furniture first" and put it on the truck. (Id. at 18-19.) They then packed all of Baker's remaining belongings into cardboard boxes and loaded the boxes onto the truck. (Id. at 16, 19.) Baker did not pack or move any of the boxes. (Id. at 16; see also Dkt No. 48-5, Oliver, Cook, and Pitcock Affs. 1-3.)

The next day, April 11, the employees drove Baker's belongings to Orchard Ridge. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 17.) Baker met them there between 10 and 11 a.m. so that she could show them where to place the furniture inside Unit 335, which is on the third floor. (Id. at 17-18; Dkt. No. 48-5 at 1-3.) Since Baker did not yet have a keycard to the unit, [3] Orchard Ridge arranged to have Shockey unlock the unit before she and the employees arrived. (Dkt. No. 48-1 at 35; Dkt. No. 48-4 at 21-22.) The employees first unloaded the boxes and moved them into the unit. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 18, 26.) There were between 20 and 30 boxes of "all sizes." (Id. at 18.) The employees stacked them in the center of the kitchen. (Id. at 27-28.) Baker did not tell the employees to place the boxes there; rather, they made that decision on their own, apparently to give themselves "room to get the furniture in." (Id. at 19.)

Next, the employees unloaded and moved the furniture into Unit 335. (Id. at 18, 26.) As they brought in each piece, Baker would "let them know where to put [it]." (Id. at 18.) Once the employees had placed all of the furniture, they went into the kitchen and cut open some of the boxes so that it would be easier for Baker to unpack them later. (Id. at 31.) The employees and Baker then decided to quit for the day. (Id. at 34.) They left together around 6 p.m. (Id. at 24; Dkt. No. 48-5 at 1-3.) The unit was unlocked when they left. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 21-22.)

Baker was not the only resident moving her belongings into a unit in Area E on April 11. Orchard Ridge had given permission to other residents as well. (Dkt. No. 48-1 at 44-45; see also Dkt. 48-4 at 20-21.) With multiple residents moving in at the same time, "the elevators were very backed up." (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 21.) As a result, Baker's move took "a little longer than it might have." (Id. at 20.)

C. Boxes in Unit 335 catch fire and set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system.

Around 8:45 p.m. on April 11, a fire alarm in Orchard Ridge's main building began to sound, and so the local fire department sent an engine company to the community. (Dkt. No. 48-6, Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department, Office of the Fire Marshall, Supplemental Investigation Report 1, Apr. 16, 2013.)[4] While en route, the firefighters received a call from dispatch notifying them of a possible fire in Unit 335. (Id. ) Upon arriving at the main building, the firefighters first confirmed the location of the active fire alarm and then proceeded to the unit. (Id. ) As they made their way up to the third floor, they "observed the evacuation of all occupants being conducted." (Id. )

With the help of Orchard Ridge's security personnel, the firefighters reached the unit. (Id. ) Once inside, one of them saw that a "sprinkler head had activated in the kitchen ceiling." (Id. ) He also noticed that there was "light smoke evacuating [the kitchen] via the entryway between the bulkhead and the sprinkler head's water column." (Id. ) In the kitchen, he "discovered a large area of moving boxes... with two of them sitting on the glass range top." (Id. ) After gaining access to the stove, he saw that the boxes "had varying degrees of char and that the left two burners were in the on position with a red indicator illuminated." (Id. ) He "turned both burners to the off position and removed the cardboard boxes from [the] ignition source." (Id. ) He then confirmed that the fire on the boxes was out and "secured the water flow to the affected areas." (Id. )

While the water extinguished the fire, it damaged the unit and surrounding area. (Id.; Dkt. No. 48-1 at 17.) As Orchard Ridge's insurer, Hartford paid more than $290, 000 to repair the water damage. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 14.)

D. Hartford sues Baker and Help U Move.

In May 2014, Hartford, as Orchard Ridge's subrogee, filed this action against Baker and Help U Move, seeking to recover the money that it paid to repair the water damage to Unit 335 and surrounding area. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 14.) As to Baker, Hartford alleges that she, "directly and by and through her agents and/or representatives, " was negligent in failing to (1) "secure the premises against a foreseeable risk of danger prior to leaving [the unit]"; (2) "maintain the subject premises in a safe and reasonable condition"; (3) "properly supervise and/or direct Help U Move employees unloading boxes into the residence"; and (4) "use due care under the circumstances." (Id. ¶ 21.) Hartford further alleges that, "[a]s a direct and proximate result of... Baker's negligence, Orchard Ridge sustained damages." (Id. ¶ 22.)

Baker answered, denying these allegations (Dkt. No. 5, Baker's Answer ¶ 18), and discovery followed. At her deposition, Baker testified that she did not enter the kitchen "at any time" on April 11, 2013. (Dkt. No. 48-4 at 26.) She further testified that she did not see any boxes on top of the kitchen counters or appliances, and that she "would have noticed that" because she was "trying to take good care of everything." (Id. at 28.) She only saw "boxes on boxes" in the middle of the kitchen. (Id. ) So it would "[a]bsolutely" surprise her to learn that a firefighter found two boxes on the stove. (Id. at 29, 31.)

Baker also testified that she does not know what the "electric situation" in Unit 335 was on April 11. (Id. at 22.)[5] She did not attempt to plug anything in, and she does not recall whether the lights were on. (Id. at 23.) Before leaving for the day, she "took a last look" in the bedroom, living room, and den, but not in the kitchen. (Id. at 35.) There was "nothing for [her] to check in the kitchen, " she explained, "because the boxes were there." (Id. at 35.) When asked whether, "in her previous residence, [she] ever [made] sure that all the appliances [were] turned off, " she replied: "Well, of course. Of course." (Id. at 25.) And she added that she "currently... check[s] all the appliances to make sure they're turned off." (Id. ) Indeed, she does not even "leave a light bulb burning when [she is] not there." (Id. )

She further testified that there were residents living in Orchard Ridge's main building on April 11 and that she saw some of them that afternoon when she went down to the community's bistro to grab a sandwich. (Id. at 45-46.) In addition, she saw cars in the parking lot when she arrived in the morning and when she left in the evening. (Id. at 46-47.) She does not know, however, whether there were any residents living on her floor at that time. (Id. at 47, 49.) With the exception of the Help U Move employees, she did not see anyone in the hallway outside Unit 335 during the move ( id. at 41), though she was "inside most of the time" ( id. at 21). Nor did she see anyone other than the Help U Move employees enter the unit. (Id. at 41.)

Orchard Ridge's corporate designee, Lawrence Bradshaw, was also deposed. He testified that there were no residents occupying units in Area E on April 11, because Orchard Ridge had not yet received the necessary certificates of occupancy. (Dkt. No. 48-1 at 18, 44.) The units were still undergoing "inspections and corrections per the inspection... on that date." (Id. at 23.) Shockey "would have definitely been" there handling the inspections and corrections, and ARCH was "probably there, " too. (Id. at 23-24; see also id. at 70-71.) Final inspections were scheduled for April 12, and Orchard Ridge "anticipated receiving the certificate[s] of occupancy on that day." (Id. at 32.)

Bradshaw also testified that Orchard Ridge did not take possession of a unit until a certificate of occupancy had been issued. (Id. at 28.) On April 11, then, Shockey was in possession of Unit 335 and all other units in Area E. ( See id. at 28-29.) It was thus responsible on that date "for assuring people couldn't get in and locking down any units" in the area. (Id. at 29.) According to Bradshaw, "Shockey was not locking everything down during the day so [that it] could have [its] housekeeping staff and maintenance staff in there. But... at night [its] normal process was to ...

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