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Singleton v. Arkansas Housing Authorities Property

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

March 31, 2018




         Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by separate defendants Arkansas Housing Authorities Property & Casualty Self-Insured Fund Inc., a/k/a/ Max Howell Place Housing Projects, and Evanston Insurance Company (collectively, “Housing Authority defendants”) (Dkt. No. 56).[1] Plaintiff Marilyn Beavers filed a response to the Housing Authority defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 188). Separate plaintiffs Furlandare Singleton and Clyde Hatchet filed a motion to adopt and incorporate by reference Ms. Beavers' response (Dkt. No. 194). The Court grants Mr. Singleton and Mr. Hatchet's motion to adopt (Dkt. No. 194). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c) (“A statement in a pleading may be adopted by reference elsewhere in the same pleading or in any other pleading or motion.”). The Housing Authority defendants filed a reply to plaintiffs' response (Dkt. No. 199).

         In the early morning hours of March 22, 2012, Ms. Beavers and her children, Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton, died after a fire in the kitchen of their apartment in Jacksonville. These events are unimaginably tragic. This Court has studied carefully and thoroughly the filings and record evidence in this case. For the following reasons, the Court grants the Housing Authority defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. Nos. 56). The Court dismisses with prejudice all claims against the Housing Authority defendants.

         I. Hearing

         As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that Ms. Beavers' requested a hearing on the Housing Authority defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 188, ¶ 5). Through informal communications, Ms. Beavers withdrew her request for a hearing. Therefore, the Court denies as moot Ms. Beavers' request for a hearing.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to entry of judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Miner v. Local 373, 513 F.3d 854, 860 (8th Cir. 2008). “The mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient alone to bar summary judgment; rather, the dispute must be outcome determinative under the prevailing law.” Holloway v. Pigman, 884 F.2d 365, 366 (8th Cir. 1989).

         Parties opposing a summary judgment motion may not rest merely upon the allegations in their pleadings. Buford v. Tremayne, 747 F.2d 445, 447 (8th Cir. 1984). The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that there is a genuine issue to be determined at trial. Prudential Ins. Co. v. Hinkel, 121 F.3d 364, 366 (8th Cir. 1997).

         The nonmoving party “must respond by submitting evidentiary materials that set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial” and “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Gannon Int'l, Ltd. v. Blocker, 684 F.3d 785, 792 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc)). “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         III. Background

         The following facts are taken from plaintiffs' response to statement of undisputed material facts in support of Housing Authority defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 190). Ms. Beavers leased an apartment for herself and her four children from the Jacksonville Housing Authority (Id., at 2). The Jacksonville Housing Authority ensured that a smoke detector was installed in Ms. Beavers' apartment (Id.). Ms. Beavers and her children Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton died from smoke inhalation resulting from a fire in Ms. Beavers' apartment on March 22, 2012 (Dkt. Nos. 57, at 2; 189, at 3).

         IV. Discussion

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett bring negligence and premises liability claims against the Housing Authority defendants (Dkt. No. 27, ¶¶ 80-85, 96-101). They also allege wrongful death and survival claims against the Housing Authority defendants (Dkt. No. 27, ¶¶ 86-95). Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett premise their negligence and premises liability claims on the Housing Authority defendants' alleged failure to ensure that “properly working and accessible smoke alarms/detectors were properly installed in the Decedents' apartment unit” (Id., ¶¶ 82, 98). They contend that, as a direct and proximate result of the Housing Authority defendants' acts, Ms. Beavers, Dequan Singleton, Syndi Singleton, Haylee Singleton, and Emily Beavers suffered damages (Id., ¶¶ 83-85, 99-101).

         In support of their motion for summary judgment, the Housing Authority defendants argue that they fulfilled any relevant duty owed to plaintiffs “by ensuring that a functional smoke detector or alarm was installed in the Beavers' apartment” and that no further duty was owed (Dkt. No. 56, at 1-2). The Housing Authority defendants note that plaintiffs “concede that Ms. Beavers was awake and aware of the fire as she attempted to put it out” and that “whether the smoke alarm worked or failed to work is irrelevant since it is undisputed that Ms. Beavers knew about the fire and attempted to extinguish it.” (Id., at 2). Further, the Housing Authority defendants maintain that there is no record evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that they “breached any duty owed to decedents that proximately caused their death by smoke inhalation.” (Id.). Proximate cause is also required for plaintiffs to establish their wrongful death and survival damages claims. Scott v. Cent. Arkansas Nursing Centers, Inc., 278 S.W.3d 587, 595 (Ark. App. 2008) (“In a wrongful-death case, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of the decedent's death.”).

         In response, plaintiffs contend that the Housing Authority defendants oversimplify the analysis of what duties were owed to plaintiffs (Dkt. No. 188, at 2). They contend that significant questions of fact exist as to whether the Housing Authority defendants breached those duties and that significant questions of fact exist as to whether that breach proximately caused decedents' injuries (Id.).

         A.Duties Owed

         The parties agree that the general rule and common law in Arkansas imposes no legal obligation upon a landlord for a tenant's injury on the premises unless a duty is imposed by statute or agreement. Bartley v. Sweetser, 890 S.W.2d 250, 252 (Ark. 1994).

Arkansas Code Annotated § 18-16-110 codifies this principle:
No landlord or agent or employee of a landlord shall be liable to a tenant or a tenant's licensee or invitee for death, personal injury, or property damage proximately caused by any defect or disrepair on the premises absent the landlord's:
(1) Agreement supported by consideration or assumption by conduct of a duty to undertake an obligation to maintain or repair the leased premises; and
(2) Failure to perform the agreement or assumed duty in a reasonable manner.

         This statute is consistent with what Arkansas law requires for plaintiffs to prevail on their claims against the Housing Authority defendants. See Ark. Model Jury Inst., Civil 1105 (2017). Only an express agreement or assumption of duty by conduct can remove a landlord from the general rule of nonliability. Propst v. McNeill, 932 S.W.2d 766, 769 (Ark. 1996). Beyond these general principles, however, the parties disagree on precisely what duty was or duties were owed.

         “The issue of whether a duty exists is always a question of law, not to be decided by a trier of fact.” Lacy v. Flake & Kelley Management, Inc., 235 S.W.3d 894, 896 (Ark. 2006). Summary judgment is appropriate if no duty of care is owed. Id.

         Ms. Beavers and the Housing Authority defendants entered into a written lease on January 4, 2007, which was in effect at the time of the March 22, 2012, fire (Dkt. No. 56-1, Dwelling Lease; Dkt. No. 56-1, Nix. Aff., ¶ 2). As relevant to this dispute, the Housing Authority defendants agreed “[t]o comply with requirements of applicable building code, and HUD regulations materially affecting health and safety.” (Id., Dwelling Lease, ¶ VI.A.2.). The Housing Authority defendants maintain that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) regulations required “that at least one working smoke detector be installed in the unit leased to Marilyn Beavers.” (Dkt. No. 57, at 6-7 (citing 24 C.F.R. § 5.703(d)(4)). Under the lease, as relevant to this dispute, Ms. Beavers agreed “[t]o provide reasonable care (including changing batteries) and perform interim testing of smoke detectors to [sic] they are in working order.” (Dkt. No. 56-1, Dwelling Lease, ¶ VII.G.).

         Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett maintain additional duties were owed by the Housing Authority defendants under the following statutes: 42 U.S.C. §§ 1437 (Declaration of policy and public housing agency organization), 1437a (Rental payments), 1437d (Contract provisions and requirements; loans and annual contributions), 1437g (Public Housing Capital and Operating Funds); 42 U.S.C. § 3535(c) (Administrative provisions; Employment, compensation, authority, and duties of personnel); 42 U.S.C. §§ 4821-4846 (Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention); Ark. Code Ann. § 12-13-105 (State Fire Marshal Enforcement Section); Ark. Code Ann. §§ 25-15-201 to -214 (Arkansas Administrative Procedures Act) (Dkt. No. 189, at 6). Aside from citing these statutes, plaintiffs make no argument regarding them. If plaintiffs intend to rely on these statutes for points to defeat the Housing Authority defendants' motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs fail to make a convincing argument to this Court. Despite careful review of the cited sections, it remains unclear to this Court what in the cited statutes applies to the specific facts of this case or is pertinent to rebut the Housing Authority defendants' arguments in support of summary judgment.

         Plaintiffs specifically cite three additional duties they contend were owed by the Housing Authority defendants: (1) the duty by the “homeowner” to inspect the smoke detector monthly (Dkt. No. 189, at 8-9 (citing the 2007 Arkansas Fire Prevention Code, effective August 1, 2008 (“2007 AFPC”) 901.6)); (2) the duty to replace the smoke detector at ten year intervals (Id.); and (3) the duty to place a smoke detector in every sleeping room and in the immediate vicinity outside of sleeping rooms (Dkt. No. 189, at 9 (2007 AFPC 907.

         As an initial matter, it is undisputed that the AFPC upon which plaintiffs rely for these additional duties did not become effective until August 1, 2008, more than a year after the Housing Authority defendants and Ms. Beavers entered into the lease agreement (Dkt. No. 188-4, Tate Aff. ¶ 10; Dkt. No. 56-1, Dwelling Lease).

         As to the last additional duty plaintiffs claim, Ms. Beavers, Mr. Singleton, and Mr. Hatchett concede an attempt to raise “an additional issue of fact” related to the placement of the smoke detector (Dkt. No. 189, at 11-12). To the extent plaintiffs contend this is an issue of fact, it is one for the Court to determine because the Court resolves what duties are owed. Plaintiffs make this concession because the record evidence upon which they rely for this point, the affidavit of plaintiffs' expert Roger Tate (Dkt. No. 188-4, Tate Aff., ¶ 10), admits the applicability of the 2007 AFPC is not clear where the apartment already had a smoke detector installed when the AFPC went into effect, like Ms. Beavers' apartment did (Id. (“The 2007 AFPC is clear in Section 907.3.1 that smoke alarms are to be installed in existing Group R occupancies that do not already have them and that such alarms are to be installed in sleeping rooms outside of sleeping rooms . . . . [T]he wording in regard to the situation in Unit 3A is less clear since it did have a smoke alarm but not the multiple alarm units expected by 2007 AFPC.”). Because plaintiffs' own expert, Mr. Tate, is unclear whether this duty was owed by the Housing Authority defendants and based on the Court's review of the evidence, the Court concludes the Housing Authority defendants did not owe this additional duty related to location and placement of the smoke detector.

         For purposes of resolving this motion, the Court will assume without deciding that the Housing Authority defendants owed the duty they identify and the other two additional duties plaintiffs specifically identify.

         B. Breach

         The Housing Authority defendants maintain that, according to the record evidence, they installed one hard-wired working smoke detector in the one-level unit (Dkt. No. 56-1, Nix Aff., ¶ 3; Dkt. No. 199, at 8). Further, the Housing Authority defendants inspected the smoke detector on December 20, 2011, and January 26, 2012, when completing work orders in Ms. Beavers' unit and confirmed the smoke detector was in working order (Dkt. No. 56-1, Nix Aff., ¶ 5). They maintain that, after installing a working smoke detector, it became Ms. Beavers' duty under the lease to ensure that the smoke detector continued to work (Dkt. No. 57, at 9).

         The Housing Authority defendants dispute that they owed any additional duties to plaintiffs. They contend that, even if they were obligated by the three additional duties plaintiffs seek to impose, those duties are irrelevant to the facts of this case. Replacement of the smoke detector and monthly checks of the smoke detector are only relevant, according to the Housing Authority defendants, if the smoke detector did not sound the night of the fire (Dkt. No. 199, at 11). The ...

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