Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Summary Judgment for Deaths in House Fire; Rutkoff v. Security Associates International, Inc.

Four teenagers went out to dinner and later had a party in the basement home of the Gordons, the parent home of one of the teenagers. The incident took place in July 2006. Two of the individuals, Hoyle and Peabody, arrived and talked with the Gordon mother, Rachelle. Hoyle smoked one cigarette and believed that the younger Gordon and Peabody each smoked one cigarette too.

Hoyle remembered putting out her own cigarette when finished, and she and her friend Gordon left after midnight. Peabody and Blake left separately.

Keyth Security Systems and Security Associates International, Inc., were responsible for the Gordon’s home fire detection system. That fire detection system failed to detect a fire that started in the basement that night. The fire resulted in the deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning of the Gordon family.

The Gordons’ estate filed suit against both Keyth and Security Associates. The defendants both filed third-party complaints seeing contribution from Gordon, Hoyle and Blake claiming that a breach of duty of care to extinguish their cigarettes was a cause of the fire in the basement.

Hoyle and Blake moved for summary judgment stating that there was no evidence produced that would show that cigarettes caused the fire.

Keyth and Security Associates maintained that based on the fire department reports and depositions, an open fire such as a cigarette was the cause of the fire. But Blake argued that the fire was not caused by a cigarette necessarily because it had not been established that it was the cigarettes that were under the exclusive control of one of the occupants in the basement.

The trial judge granted Hoyle’s and Blake’s motion for summary judgment. The security companies appealed.

The security companies asserted that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because a genuine issue of material fact existed on circumstantial evidence showing that Hoyle and Blake were negligent and liable for contribution.

The Illinois Appellate Court noted that to establish causation, it is necessary that there be both a legal cause and a cause in fact. The court stated that when circumstantial evidence is used in support of a proposition, that position must be reasonable and probable rather than merely possible. Westlake v. House Corp..

The court found no genuine issues of material fact. It noted that the fire department reports did not “unequivocally determine” that fire was caused by smoking materials. The fire department reports found only that some other sources had been eliminated.

The court assumed if cigarettes had been the cause of the fire, the court noted that all four teens had been smoking, not just Blake and Hoyle. There was no evidence of whose cigarette had caused the fire, so the court concluded that the security companies had not raised enough evidence to show a genuine issue of material fact concerning proximate cause.

The court went on to find that the circumstantial evidence presented was insufficient to support any showing of proximate cause and therefore affirmed the trial court’s rulings.

Alan Rutkoff v. Security Associates International, Inc. and Keyth Security Systems, Inc., 2012 IL App. (1st) 102873-U.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handing personal injury matters, wrongful death cases and nursing home abuse matters for individuals and families for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Lansing, Tinley Park, Homewood, Flossmoor, Crete, Chicago (Andersonville), Evanston, Bensenville and Romeoville, Ill.

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