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Singleton v. Arkansas Housing Authorities Property & Casualty Self-Insured Fund, Inc.

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

March 31, 2018

FURLANDARE SINGLETON, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
ARKANSAS HOUSING AUTHORITIES PROPERTY & CASUALTY SELF-INSURED FUND, INC., et al. DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KRISTINE G. BAKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by separate defendants Wayne Taylor, Larry Hamsher, Chris McDonald, Tony Southerland, Dewan Lewis, the City of Jacksonville, Arkansas, and the Jacksonville Fire Department (collectively, “City defendants”) (Dkt. No. 135). Plaintiff Marilyn Beavers and separate plaintiffs Furlandare Singleton and Clyde Hatchet filed responses to the City defendants' motion for summary judgement (Dkt. Nos. 141; 147). The City defendants replied to plaintiffs' responses (Dkt. Nos. 149; 150). 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 City defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismisses with prejudice all of plaintiffs' claims against the City defendants (Dkt. No. 135).

         I. Hearing

         As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that Ms. Beavers' requested a hearing on the City defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 141, ¶ 4). 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) (citation omitted).

         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) (citation omitted).

         III. Background

         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are taken from Ms. Beavers' response to the City defendants' statement of facts (Dkt. No. 143). On March 22, 2012, Ms. Beavers, Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton died of soot and smoke inhalation resulting from an accidental house fire in Ms. Beavers' apartment. Plaintiffs claim that “at or around 2:00 a.m., [Ms.] Beavers . . . shared a telephone conversation with her fiance, Furlandare Singleton, and the children, Decedents Dequan Singleton, Syndi Singleton Haylee Singleton, and Emily Beavers” (Dkt. No. 27, ¶ 34). Plaintiffs allege that the fire ignited in Ms. Beavers' kitchen and that the fire ignited “moments after” this conversation (Id., ¶ 35).

         At 5:46 a.m. on March 22, 2012, Jennifer Gray, Ms. Beavers' neighbor, called 911 to report that she smelled smoke towards the back of her apartment (Dkt. No. 143, at 2). Ms. Gray told the dispatcher that the smell of smoke was strong towards the back of the apartment, and indicated that it could be coming from her neighbor's apartment (Id.). Ms. Gray's apartment shared a common wall with Ms. Beavers' apartment, which was a mirror image of Ms. Gray's apartment (Id., at 9).

         When Ms. Gray called 911, the Jacksonville Fire Department was fighting a fire approximately a half mile from Ms. Gray's apartment (Id., at 3). The dispatcher informed Ms. Gray that the smell of smoke could be coming from that fire, but Ms. Gray insisted “that she smelled smoke inside her home and she only smelled it in her daughter's room and her bathroom” (Id., at 4). The dispatcher told Ms. Gray to remove her daughter from the apartment and to determine whether she could smell smoke outside. (Id.). After Ms. Gray reported that she did not smell smoke outside the apartment, the dispatcher told her that she would send a fire engine to her apartment as soon as possible (Id.).

         The Jacksonville Fire Department was dispatched to Ms. Gray's home at 5:50 a.m (Id.). At 6:00 a.m., Officer Southerland and Officer McDonald, who had been attending to the fire a half mile away from Ms. Gray's home, arrived at Ms. Gray's apartment in an ambulance (Id.). Captain Hamsher and Lieutenant Taylor arrived in a fire engine two minutes after Officer Southerland and Officer McDonald (Id.). Officer Southerland, Officer McDonald, Captain Hamsher, and Lieutenant Taylor investigated Ms. Gray's apartment and did not find signs of a fire (Id., at 7-11). They knocked on the front door of Ms. Beavers' apartment, but no one answered the door and they did not detect any movement inside the apartment (Id., at 12). The firefighters conducted a thermal image scan of the interior of Ms. Gray's apartment, the attic, and the perimeter of Ms. Gray and Ms. Beavers' building (Id., at 16). The firefighters concluded that there was not a fire in the building and left the scene 23 minutes after arriving (Id., at 29).[1]

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiffs allege that Officer Southerland, Officer McDonald, Captain Hamsher, and Lieutenant Taylor did not conduct a sufficient investigation of the suspected fire, which resulted in the deaths of Marilyn Beavers, Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton. They contend that the City of Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Fire Department, and Dewan Lewis failed to train properly and supervise the responding firefighters. Plaintiffs bring claims against the City Defendants for alleged constitutional violations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983 and for tort claims under Arkansas law. The City defendants move for summary judgment on all claims.

         A. Causation

         The City defendants argue that all of plaintiffs' claims fail because, “[r]egardless of the claim, the Plaintiffs must establish a causal connection between the City's actions and the deaths of Ms. Beavers and her children[, ]” and that the plaintiffs have no evidence to meet their burden (Dkt. No. 136, at 9). Ms. Beavers does not address this argument in her response to the City defendants' motion for summary judgment. Mr. Singleton and Mr. Hatchett argue that summary judgment is improper because “[r]easonable minds could differ as to the time of the death of Ms. Beavers and her children” (Dkt. No. 148, at 5).

         For each of their claims against the City defendants, Mr. Singleton, Mr. Hatchett, and Ms. Beavers have the burden to prove that the City defendants' actions caused harm to Marilyn Beavers, Haylee Singleton, Dequan Singleton, Emily Beavers, and Syndi Singleton. See Mayorga v. Missouri, 442 F.3d 1128, 1132 (8th Cir. 2006) (“Liability under section 1983 requires a causal link to, and direct responsibility for, the deprivation of rights.”) (quoting Madewell v. Roberts, 909 F.2d 1203, 1208 (8th Cir. 1990)); Stauch v. City of Columbia Heights, 212 F.3d 425, 429 (8th Cir. 2000) (“In a section 1983 suit against a municipality, we must determine two separate issues: ‘(1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation.'”) (quoting Collins v. City of Harker Heights,503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992)); 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 ...


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