After apartment explosion, family's injury suit is summarily dismissed due to "insufficient evidence."
Stephen and Natasha McClain attempted to sue their apartment's owners and a repairman, after their rental unit was gutted by a fire that started with an explosion in the basement of the neighboring unit. They and their minor son were hurt. The facts showed that the fire resulted from a gas line which had apparently been "opened" in the basement, 1-3 hours before the explosion. A repair and clean-up man had been in the adjacent apartment approximately 3 and 1/2 hours before the explosion. The McClains argued that he and the landlord should be responsible for the damages because they had either caused the gas leak or left the empty apartment vulnerable to an arson attempt.
The Kent County trial judge dismissed all of the McClain's theories against both defendants, and they appealed. The higher court upheld the summary disposition, determining that the McClains lacked adequate evidence to hold either defendant accountable. They held that there was insufficient circumstantial evidence to support a claim that the repairman had been in the basement and caused the leak [even though the unit may have been found to have been "locked" during the fire inspection], and that a landlord could not be expected to detect an unsafe condition within three hours.
It was particularly surprising that the Court summarily ruled that the defendants would not be held accountable if it turned out that they negligently allowed access to the empty apartment: it ruled that the basement was not a "common area" which a landlord is obligated to maintain safely, and that it was not "foreseeable" that a third party might use access to the basement "simply to turn on the gas line..." Therefore, the landlord's duty to act where a "criminal assault" may be anticipated did not come into play.