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Singleton v. Arkansas Housing Authorities Property & Casualty Self-Insured Fund, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 19, 2019

Furlandare Singleton, individually and as administrator of the estates of Dequan Singleton, Syndi Singleton, and Haylee Singleton, decedents; Clyde Hatchett, individually and as administrator of the estate of Emily Beaver, decedent; and Marilyn Louise Beavers, individually as an administrator of the estate of Marilyn Beavers, decedent Plaintiffs-Appellants
Arkansas Housing Authorities Property & Casualty Self-Insured Fund, Inc. (specifically, the Jacksonville Housing Authority, also known as Max Howell Place Housing Projects); Evanston Insurance Company, an Illinois corporation; Phil Nix, individually and in his official capacity as executive director of Jacksonville Housing Authority; BRK Brands, Inc.; City of Jacksonville; Jacksonville Fire Department; Engineer Wayne Taylor, individually and in his official capacity; Captain Larry Hamsher, individually and in his official capacity; Engineer Chris McDonald, individually and in his official capacity; Firefighter Tony Sutherland, individually and in his official capacity; Captain Dewan Lewis, individually and in his official capacity; and John and Jane Does, 1-50 Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: January 16, 2019

          Appeals from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Western Division

          Before LOKEN, GRASZ, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         Marilyn Beavers ("Beavers") and her four children tragically died from smoke inhalation as a result of a kitchen fire in their apartment in Jacksonville, Arkansas. The administrators of their estates sued all of the following: (1) the Jacksonville Housing Authority ("JHA"), along with its director and its insurer, alleging they failed to equip the apartment with a working smoke alarm; (2) the manufacturer of the smoke alarm, alleging the smoke alarm in the apartment was defective and failed to sound during the fire; and (3) the City of Jacksonville, its fire department, and several firefighters, alleging the firefighters conducted a deficient investigation when they responded to a report by Beavers's neighbor of smelling smoke. The district court[1]granted summary judgment to each of the defendants, concluding there was insufficient evidence of causation. The plaintiffs each appealed. The administrator of Beavers's estate also appealed the denial of her motion to exclude the defendants' expert witness and the district court's imposition of certain discovery costs on her counsel. We affirm the district court.

         I. Background

         In the early morning of March 22, 2012, Beavers and her children, Dequan, Syndi, Haylee, and Emily, spoke on the phone with Beavers's fiancee, Furlandare Singleton, before going to bed. Phone records show the call began at 2:19 a.m. and lasted for about four and a half minutes. Shortly thereafter, a fire erupted in the kitchen. The fire marshal later determined unattended cooking caused the fire. A pot was found on a kitchen stove burner and the burner knob was turned to the on position.

         At 5:46 a.m., Beavers's neighbor, Jennifer Gray, whose apartment shared a wall with Beavers's apartment in their duplex building, called 911, reporting that she "smell[ed] a strong smell of smoke." Firefighters arrived at 6:02 a.m. After investigating in Gray's apartment and knocking on Beavers's apartment door - finding no signs of smoke or fire - they left at 6:23 a.m.

         At around 7:25 a.m., two maintenance workers who had been contacted by Gray walked around the duplex and noticed fire damage near the kitchen window of Beavers's apartment. They let themselves inside and found the bodies of Beavers and her children. Two children were found in one bedroom, a third child was found in another bedroom, and Beavers and the fourth child were found together in the bathroom. The cause of death for each decedent was soot and smoke inhalation. The coroner was unable to determine the approximate time of the deaths.

         Beavers's body was found with severe burns on her hands, arms, forehead, and neck from attempting to extinguish the fire. While Beavers's efforts to extinguish the fire were not successful, the fire marshal determined she likely interrupted the burning process and the fire burnt itself out after spreading from the kitchen range to the cabinetry.

         A smoke alarm that had been mounted in the hallway of the apartment was found lying on the floor. When the smoke alarm was moved from the floor, the absence of soot on the carpet underneath it indicated that it was "on the floor early in the fire," according to a Jacksonville Police Department detective. The alarm had been mounted on the ceiling and was "hard wired," meaning it was directly wired to the apartment's electricity and was not battery powered. The detective noted in his report that he believed the heat from the smoke caused the smoke alarm to lose its form and fall from its mount, disconnecting from the wires in the ceiling. But a report by the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory said a visual examination showed the wires appeared to have been cut. The hallway light switch had soot smears on it and there was a scratch in the "popcorn" ceiling near where the smoke alarm had been mounted.

         In Arkansas state court, Marilyn Louise Beavers ("Marilyn Louise") (the mother of the decedent, Beavers, and the administrator of Beavers's estate), sued the JHA, the director of the JHA, and the JHA's insurance company (Evanston Insurance Co.) (collectively, "the Housing Authority Defendants");[2] the City of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Fire Department, and several individual firefighters (collectively, "the City Defendants"); and the manufacturer of the smoke alarm (BRK Brands, Inc.). Separately, Singleton (the administrator of the estates of Beavers's children Dequan, Syndi, and Haylee Singleton) and Clyde Hatchett (the administrator of the estate of Beavers's other child, Emily Beavers) sued the same defendants. Marilyn Louise, Singleton, and Hatchett each filed suit both individually and in their capacities as administrators of the decedents' estates. These cases were consolidated and later removed to federal court.

         Prior to any summary judgment motions, BRK filed a motion for the court to approve of non-destructive and, if necessary, destructive testing of the smoke alarm found in Beavers's apartment. BRK included a proposed protocol for the examination. The motion noted all the defendants agreed to the testing and all the plaintiffs opposed the testing. Marilyn Louise formally objected to the motion. Before the district court ruled on the motion, the parties agreed to a non-destructive examination of the alarm. All parties were present at this examination that occurred in December 2015. According to the defendants, the examination definitively showed the smoke alarm sounded during the fire.

         Marilyn Louise then moved for additional testing of the smoke alarm, including destructive testing. BRK, joined by the Housing Authority Defendants, objected to the additional testing, noting this was the exact testing it originally proposed but Marilyn Louise opposed, and the testing could have been done in the first examination. BRK also noted the examination was unnecessary since the first one conclusively showed the smoke alarm had properly functioned during the fire. Additional testing would impose additional costs on the defendants because they would have to pay for their experts to travel to and attend the examination. The district court allowed the testing, but under the condition that counsel for Marilyn Louise would be "required to pay all of defendants' reasonable costs for expert witnesses related to the additional testing." The court further said that "[i]f a dispute over costs arises, the parties may move for a hearing on the issue." But on a motion to reconsider, the district court limited the cost to be borne by counsel for Marilyn Louise to $1, 000.

         The Housing Authority Defendants, the City Defendants, and BRK each moved for summary judgment. Prior to the district court ruling on the summary judgment motions, Marilyn Louise moved to strike the affidavit of the defendants' expert Dr. Daniel T. Gottuk, who opined that the application of the enhanced soot deposition ("ESD") methodology showed the smoke alarm did sound during the fire. The district court denied the motion, concluding Dr. Gottuk's expert testimony was "sufficiently reliable and trustworthy" to be admitted.

         The district court granted the defendants' summary judgment motions, finding among other things there was insufficient evidence to show the decedents' deaths were caused by the defendants' actions. As to the Housing Authority Defendants and BRK, the district court concluded there was no record evidence "as to when Ms. Beavers became aware of the fire in relation to when decedents became unconscious," "of how much time she spent trying to put out the fire," "as to when the alarm sounded in relation to when decedents became unconscious," or "that decedents lacked sufficient time to escape the fire as a proximate result of any claimed issue with the smoke detector." Marilyn Louise, Singleton, and Hatchett separately appealed.

         II. ...

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