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7th Circuit allows Michigan man to sue Indiana body shop for fire that destroyed his vehicle

October 12, 2016

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned summary judgment in favor of a northern Indiana body shop Wednesday after finding that a Michigan man has legal ground to sue the body shop for a fire that destroyed his car.

James Blasius, a Michigan resident, purchased a used 2005 Ford Excursion in July 2009 and contacted Angel Automotive Inc., located in Elkhart, for improvements to his car in the summer of 2012. AAI mechanics Thomas Angel and Daniel Fine performed the work in June 2012, going so far as to remove the vehicle’s body from its chassis and disconnecting coolant lines, brake lines and power steering hoses, consistent with Blasius’ extensive requests.

After Blasius picked the car up on June 28 and drove it a distance of roughly 200 miles back to Michigan, he emailed AAI to complain of new or persisting issues. Later that night, Blasius, his son and his son’s friends were in the Excursion when they noticed smoke coming out of the interior vents and behind the vehicle. Blasius also said his parking, emergency and trailer brakes on his motorcycle trailer in tow were non-responsive.

The Excursion eventually came to a stop on its own, and after Blasius and his passengers had escaped, burning diesel fuel running along the bottom and sides of the vehicle destroyed the car and damaged the motorcycle trailer. When Blasius notified Angel of the fire, Angel admitted it was likely caused by a fuel leak.

Blasius filed a negligence and breach of contract suit against AAI in January 2013, and Adam Hooker, a fire expert hired by Blasius, attributed the fire to the diesel and brake fluid systems that were worked on during AAI’s overhaul of the Excursion.

However, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of AAI in March 2015, finding that Blasius “failed to present evidence showing that (AAI’s) modification to the (Excursion) caused the fire.” The district court also held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply.

Blasius appealed the case of James Blasius v. Angel Automotive, Inc., 15-2994, to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging both facets of the district court’s decision.

In an opinion posted Wednesday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Blasius, with District Judge John Blakey, who was sitting by designation, writing that the district court had overlooked a written report submitted by Hooker in which he said the fire originated in a portion of the vehicle that AAI had “manipulated and/or removed and reinstalled.”

The district court had focused on a portion of Hooker’s testimony in which he was reluctant to say the fire was “more likely than not” caused by AAI’s work, but Blakey wrote that if the court had focused on the testimony in its entirety, it would have been clear that his reluctance reflected his confusion regarding adverse questioning and not a hesitancy regarding the probable cause of the fire.

Further, Blakey said that Hooker’s written report, combined with Angel’s admission that the fire was likely caused by a fuel leak and Blasius’ own observations at the scene, provided evidence to support a sufficient factual basis that a jury could use to find in favor of Blasius on the causation element of his negligence charge.

In regard to the district court’s rejection of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the 7th Circuit wrote that although Blasius was in possession of the car at the time of the fire, the record does not show that anyone other than AAI performed any material repair on the Excursion between the time when Blasius picked it up and when it caught fire. Thus, the circuit court held that Blasius could rely on the doctrine in the case.

The 7th Circuit Court, therefore, reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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