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In Fire, Who’s To Blame?
by Ron Davis

A tenant of a Texas shopping center has cleared a major hurdle in defending against charges that a fire that damaged the premises of other tenants resulted from negligence.

The shopping center where the fire occurred is Palm Village in Brownsville, and the tenant charged with negligence is a Dollar General store. The cause of the fire was apparently a faulty light fixture whose sparks ignited nearby flammable objects, eventually spreading flames and smoke to other parts of the shopping center. Neighboring tenants that suffered damage from the fire claimed that the Dollar General tenant was remiss in not repairing the faulty fixture, having a defective fire wall, and operating without a sprinkler system.

Testimony in the case revealed that on the day of the fire, employees and customers of the Dollar General store detected a burning smell whose source no one could trace. Dollar General’s management and employees failed to report the smell to the local fire department, nor did management close the store or shut off power in an effort to trace the smell to its source.

The neighboring tenants that suffered damage from the fire sued the Dollar General tenant. In response, the Dollar General tenant claimed that evidence in the case was insufficient to prove negligence.

A Texas court, despite the absence of attorneys for the Dollar General tenant because of confusion over the trial schedule, ruled in favor of the neighboring tenants.

On appeal, a Texas appellate court heard arguments from both parties and concluded that the neighboring tenants did not provide proof that any legal duty was due them by the Dollar General tenant.

Explained the judges, “The evidence did not establish how Dollar General’s actions or omissions breached any duty owed to others at the shopping center. This court therefore cannot assess whether Dollar General’s breach caused the damages to its neighbors. As that evidence does not establish the requisite elements to sustain a cause of action for negligence, we conclude that the evidence is legally insufficient.... The damages [sustained by the other tenants] could have occurred without negligence.”

The court therefore ordered a new trial to determine if facts in the case support a charge of negligence on the part of the Dollar General tenant. (Dolgencorp of Texas, Inc. v. Lerma, 2005 WL 1838633 [Tex,App.-Corpus Christi])

Decision: August 2005
Published: August 2005



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