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Court Directs That Additional Oral Evidence be Adduced on Summary Judgment Motion in Fire Loss Product Liability Claim

In the recent decision of St. Clair Boating v Michigan Electric Supply 2017 ONSC 3864, the Court dealt with a motion for summary judgment on a fire loss claim brought by the defendants. The plaintiff owned and operated a boat warehouse which was destroyed in a fire five years prior to the hearing of the motion. The plaintiff claimed $19 million in damages.

The plaintiff advanced the theory that the fire was caused when one of the metal halide bulbs in the warehouse exploded, causing hot ejected particles to land on and ignite a combustible tarp covering boats stored underneath it. The plaintiff sued a host of defendants including the manufacturer, distributor, and installer of the light bulb and the light fixture. The plaintiff alleged that the design and manufacture of the light fixture was defective and that it should have protected against the possibility of a rupture of the bulb, known to be a fire hazard. The moving defendants disputed this theory of liability on the basis that there was no causal connection that the light bulb caused the fire, and asked the Court to grant summary judgment in their favour.

The material filed on this motion consisted of 15 expert reports, affidavits of various fact and expert witnesses, and transcripts of cross-examinations of the witnesses. Although the Court expressed difficulty in summarily deciding the matter based on the evidentiary record before it, the Court agreed that the causation issue was severable from other liability issues and determinative of the matter. On this basis, the Court ordered that additional oral evidence be adduced.

The Court was critical of the evidentiary record including the methods and conclusions of the post-fire origin and cause investigation conducted by the plaintiff's expert. It is notable that no fire debris samples were seized from the identified area of origin for further investigation and the site was cleaned up before notice was provided to the defendants, contrary to the NFPA 921 guidelines. No "good explanation" was offered by the plaintiff for clearing the site when it did, and the defendants argued that the destruction of the evidence forever prejudiced them in defending the claim.

While it will be interesting to follow how this summary judgment motion progresses, this case illustrates that the expanded evidentiary powers on a summary judgment allow the Court to require that further oral evidence be adduced to assist with determining whether a genuine issue requiring a trial exists, even where the matters in dispute deal with complex technical issues. The motivation for such further consideration in this case is the possibility of deciding this matter summarily on further evidence so as to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation.