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James Garbell et al v. Conejo Hardwoods

April 5, 2011

JAMES GARBELL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
CONEJO HARDWOODS, INC., DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. LC076832 APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Paul Gutman, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Aldrich, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

The smoke from a fire at the Calabasas home of James and Rita Garbell damaged their personal property. For their personal property loss, the Garbells' insurance company paid the policy limit of $424,050, which covered about half of their loss. The Garbells sued Conejo Hardwoods, Inc. to recover for their uninsured loss, and the Garbells' insurer sued Conejo Hardwoods in a separate subrogation action to recover what it paid the Garbells. Workers from Conejo Hardwoods (the workers)*fn1 were installing hardwood flooring in the Garbells' house on the day of the fire.

The jury returned a verdict with findings that Conejo Hardwoods negligently caused the fire, attributing 55 percent of the fault to Conejo Hardwoods for the Garbells' total loss of $822,483.45, resulting in a judgment against Conejo Hardwoods of $452,365.90. The trial court then deducted the insurance payment of $424,050, which was at issue in the subrogation action, leaving a net recovery of $28,315.90.

The Garbells appeal the trial court's damages calculation, contending the trial court miscalculated comparative fault, but the Garbells' argument confuses the collateral source rule with the subrogation doctrine. Conejo Hardwoods cross-appeals, contending there was no substantial evidence presented on causation. We conclude sufficient evidence supports causation, and the trial court correctly calculated the judgment. We reverse, however, and remand for modification of the judgment and a reconsideration of Conejo Hardwoods' motion for costs.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

1. A House Fire Damages the Garbells' House and its Contents

The origin of the fire that destroyed the Garbells' personal property was a 35-gallon garbage can located in their garage. The workers used the garage to store their materials and to cut the pre-stained flooring before installation.

Bryan Robertson was working on the day of the fire installing the hardwood floors. Robertson, along with another worker, smoked at the job site. They did not smoke in the garage. Robertson testified that during his breaks, he and another worker would sit on the edge of his truck parked on the street and have a cigarette. When they were done smoking, they would extinguish their cigarettes in a glass Snapple bottle that had a little liquid remaining in the bottle. At the end of the day, Robertson either threw the sealed Snapple bottle into the trash, or left it in his truck. If he threw the bottle into the trash, he sealed it by putting the cap back on the bottle. Robertson was sure he followed what he described as this "routine" on the day of the fire.

Neither one of the Garbells saw the workers smoking in the garage. The Garbells saw the workers smoking near the house by the driveway, but they did not see what the workers did with their discarded cigarettes.

The fire started after the workers left for the day. The Garbells were not at home.

2. Cause of the Fire

Causation was a principal issue at trial. The garbage can located in the garage was the point of origin, but it was almost completely destroyed in the fire.

Derek Olin is a fire investigator and was hired to investigate the fire scene to determine the cause of the fire. During the course of Olin's investigation, he learned that two of the workers smoked at the job site, and they told him at the end of the day they "either threw the glass container with the cigarette butts in it into this trash can with sawdust and wood shavings and trash or they dumped the ...


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