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International Paper Co. v. Deep South Equipment Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

March 19, 2015



MARK L. HORNSBY, Magistrate Judge.


International Paper ("IP") operates a paper mill near Mansfield, Louisiana. It leased a warehouse in nearby Red River Parish to store used paper and corrugated containers that would be used as feedstock. Tango Transport ("Tango") operated the warehouse for IP.

Tango rented a lift truck from Deep South Equipment Company ("Deep South") to use in the warehouse. The truck was built by NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc. ("NACCO"). Several days after the truck arrived at the warehouse, it was parked in an area lit by a high-intensity light made by Sylvania. An employee smelled smoke and discovered that a fire had broken out near the truck. The warehouse was destroyed.

IP had an insurance policy from Factory Mutual Insurance Company ("FM"). The insurer paid IP for its losses, including the cost of demolition and rebuilding the warehouse. IP and FM ("Plaintiffs") then filed this complaint against Deep South, NACCO, and Sylvania. They alleged that the only potential sources of ignition of the fire were the truck and the light. Before the court are a four motions for summary judgment filed by Deep South and NACCO.

Summary Judgment Burdens

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(a). A fact is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510 (1986). A dispute is "genuine" if there is sufficient evidence so that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for either party. Anderson, supra; Hamilton v. Segue Software Inc., 232 F.3d 473, 477 (5th Cir. 2000).

The party seeking summary judgment has the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those parts of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (1986). If the moving party carries his initial burden, the burden then falls upon the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute of a material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1355-56 (1986).

Deep South's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 133)

Plaintiffs originally alleged that Sylvania, the manufacturer of a metal halide lamp used in the warehouse, may have been responsible for the fire. Plaintiffs' experts collected and examined two lamps near the area of origin, and they were identified as E-10 and E-11. Sylvania filed a motion for summary judgment and argued that Plaintiffs did not have sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that its light was the proximate cause of the damages. Sylvania argued that the lightbulb in the area of origin was destroyed so it could not be examined for evidence of defects, and Plaintiffs could not otherwise establish a defect at trial. Sylvania pointed out that IP had conceded in response to a request for admissions that discovery had produced evidence that appeared to negate the assertion that a lamp-related fire was a viable theory. Plaintiffs did not file opposition to the motion. The court granted summary judgment for Sylvania and dismissed it from the case.

The requests for admissions were served by Sylvania on IP. They asked that IP admit that neither it nor its insurer could identify the metal halide lamp that they alleged in the complaint was a cause of the fire. The request asked for some other admissions about the lamp. IP responded to each of them as follows:

Plaintiff's initial investigation initially supported the conclusion that a lamp-related fire was one viable alternative theory as to the cause of the fire; however, subsequent discovery has produced evidence that appears to have negated that assertion. Further, the lamp located in the area of origin was not collected or retained as evidence.

Forest Smith, an expert for Plaintiffs, stated in his report that he examined evidence including the remains of a metal halide lighting fixture and lamp found on the floor near the right front tire of the forklift. He expressed an opinion that the cause of the fire was not due to any electrical failure or malfunction of the lighting fixture and lamp located above the forklift. Mr. Smith later issued a supplemental report in which he discussed the lighting issues in more detail and again opined that the available evidence was sufficient to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty to eliminate the lighting fixture and lamp located above the forklift as a potential cause of the event.

Deep South argues that Mr. Smith examined the lighting fixture and lamp designated as item E-ll, did not mention in his reports item E-10, and could not have examined what Deep South contends is a third (missing) light fixture. Mr. Smith backs his report with an affidavit in which he stated that both items E-10 and E-11 exhibit similar appearances that indicate they both sustained damage in the fire but did not fail in such a manner as to cause the fire. Plaintiffs contend that Deep South's argument for the existence of a third ...

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