A flooring contractor was found to have negligently caused a fire that damaged  plaintiff homeowners’ property after a jury concluded that the fire was caused by a worker’s discarded cigarette.

The flooring contractor had hired a subcontractor to install hardwood floors in plaintiffs’ residence.  The subcontractor’s workers smoked during breaks at their truck parked on the street.  They extinguished their cigarettes in a glass Snapple bottle that had a small amount of liquid in it.  At the end of the day, the workers sealed the Snapple bottle with its cap and threw it in the garbage can in plaintiffs’ garage.  The workers never smoked in the garage.

When no one was home, a fire started in the garage garbage can, which caused in excess of $822,000 smoke damage to plaintiffs’ personal property. Plaintiffs’ insurance company paid the policy limits of $424,050.  Plaintiffs sued the flooring contractor for the balance of their loss.

Causation of the fire was the issue at trial. By a process of elimination, plaintiffs’ expert ruled out all causes of the fire, except two: a smoldering cigarette and spontaneous combustion.

The plaintiffs’ expert testified that he interviewed the workers who told him that they were smoking on the job site and either threw the Snapple bottle into the trash or dumped its contents (cigarette materials) into the trash.  The expert further testified that the workers had been working in the garage before the fire started, left the job site before the fire started, and no one else was home when the fire started.

The Court of Appeal held that this was enough for the jury to reasonably infer that the workers’ discarded cigarette caused the fire.  Moreover, the court stated that it was not necessary to establish whose cigarette caused the fire.

Judgment was affirmed against the flooring contractor based upon a jury verdict with findings that the contractor was 55% at fault for the fire in Garbell v. Conejo Hardwoods, Inc. (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 1563.

Contractors should attempt to shield themselves from this type of liability by having designated smoking areas away from job sites and designated safe receptacles for discarded butts that are emptied away from the job sites.

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