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Perdue Foods LLC v. Johnson

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

December 7, 2017

PERDUE FOODS, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
JOEL CRAIG JOHNSON and SUSAN M. JOHNSON, Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO CONTINUE

          BENJAMIN H. SETTLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Purdue Foods, LLC's (“Purdue Foods”) motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 20. Also before the Court is the motion to continue of Defendants Joel Craig Johnson and Susan M. Johnson. Dkt. 35. The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motions and the remainder of the file and hereby (1) denies Purdue Foods's motion for summary judgment and (2) grants the Johnsons' motion to continue.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 15, 2016, Purdue Foods filed its complaint in this action. Dkt. 1. Purdue Foods brings a claim of negligence against the Johnsons. Id. Specifically, Purdue Foods alleges that the Johnsons negligently caused a fire by using a poorly maintained industrial “Brush Hog” mower to mow a hazardously overgrown field on a hot summer day in August. Id.; Dkts. 21-24. Ultimately, the fire spread to an adjacent farm and killed over 204, 400 chickens belonging to Purdue Foods. Dkt. 22.

         On October 5, 2017, Purdue Foods moved for summary judgment on its negligence claims. Dkt. 20. In addition to its argument on liability, Purdue Foods moved for summary judgment on the amount of damages. Id. On October 23, 2017, the Johnsons responded in opposition. Dkt. 31. The Johnsons also requested that the Court continue its consideration on the issue of damages pending the disclosure of outstanding discovery. Id. On October 27, 2017, Purdue Foods replied. Dkt. 34.

         On October 30, 2017, the Johnsons moved to continue the scheduled trial date of February 20, 2017, as well as the remaining pretrial deadlines. Dkt. 35. They seek additional time to review documentation underlying Purdue Foods' damages calculation that was ultimately disclosed on November 10, 2017. On November 15, 2017, Purdue Foods responded. Dkt. 37. On November 16, 2017, the Johnsons replied. Dkt. 39.

         II.DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Purdue Foods has moved for summary judgment on its negligence claim against the Johnsons. Dkt. 20. Summary judgment is proper only if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “[W]here the moving party has the burden-the plaintiff on a claim for relief or the defendant on an affirmative defense- his showing must be sufficient for the court to hold that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party.” Calderone v. United States, 799 F.2d 254, 259 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted; emphasis in original); see also Southern Calif. Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana, 336 F.3d 885, 888 (9th Cir. 2003).

         There is no genuine issue of fact for trial where the record, taken as a whole, could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (nonmoving party must present specific, significant probative evidence, not simply “some metaphysical doubt”). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Conversely, a genuine dispute over a material fact exists if there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute, requiring a judge or jury to resolve the differing versions of the truth. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 253 (1986); T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

         The determination of the existence of a material fact is often a close question. The Court must consider the substantive evidentiary burden that the nonmoving party must meet at trial-e.g., a preponderance of the evidence in most civil cases. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc., 809 F.2d at 630. The Court must resolve any factual issues of controversy in favor of the nonmoving party only when the facts specifically attested by that party contradict facts specifically attested by the moving party. The nonmoving party may not merely state that it will discredit the moving party's evidence at trial, in the hopes that evidence can be developed at trial to support the claim. T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc., 809 F.2d at 630 (relying on Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255). Conclusory, nonspecific statements in affidavits are not sufficient, and missing facts will not be presumed. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888-89 (1990).

         Purdue Foods has advanced three theories in favor of its motion for summary judgment. First, Purdue Foods argues that the Johnsons were negligent in allowing their field to become a fire hazard. Second, it argues that the Johnsons were negligent when Mr. Johnson instructed a worker to operate their “Bush Hog” mower on the hazardous field during a hot August day. Third, Purdue Foods argues that the Johnsons were negligent in maintaining their mower with inadequate lubrication in the gearboxes. While Purdue Foods has presented a strong case, the Court cannot conclude that Purdue Foods has established its right to recovery as a matter of law and that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than in its favor.

         Purdue Foods has presented strong evidence that Johnson's field constituted a fire hazard by providing evidence in the form of an admission from Mr. Johnson himself. However, Plaintiff has not yet established that the Johnsons acted unreasonably in creating the hazard by allowing the field grow to the extent that it did or by failing to ameliorate the hazard once it was known. Moreover, even though Mr. Johnson admits that the field constituted some type of fire hazard, Plaintiff has not necessarily proven the extent of the hazard or, in other words, “that the condition of the [field] was such that, if a fire did occur in it, it was reasonably probable that it would spread to the adjacent property.” Chicago, M., St. P. & P. R. Co. v. Poarch, 292 F.2d 449, 451 (9th Cir. 1961). Indeed, in a claim such as this, a jury is properly instructed that a plaintiff must show “(a) that the condition of appellant's buildings actually constituted a fire hazard and (b) that there was reasonable cause for appellant to foresee and anticipate that because of such condition if a fire occurred it was reasonably probable that it would spread to [the plaintiff's] premises.” Id. (emphasis added).

         Purdue has also presented strong evidence that Mr. Johnson was negligent when he decided to use the mower in circumstances that created a danger of fire. However, in the very case relied upon by Purdue Foods to argue that this act alone constitutes negligence as a matter of law, the Supreme ...


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