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Columbia Grain, Inc. v. Hinrichs Trading, LLC

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 26, 2015

COLUMBIA GRAIN, INC., a Corporation, Plaintiff,
v.
HINRICHS TRADING, LLC, dba HINRICHS TRADING COMPANY; HINRICHS AND COMPANY, a general partnership; and JOHN DOES I-V, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Hinrichs Trading Company. The motion originally sought, in part, the dismissal of defendant Hinrichs and Company, but the parties later stipulated to that dismissal and the Court approved, dismissing that defendant. The Court heard oral argument on the motion on March 26, 2015, and denied the motion from the bench. This written opinion provides a more detailed explanation for the Court's ruling.

BACKGROUND

On Sunday, May 12, 2013, a fire started in the wood crib grain elevator leased to defendant Hinrichs Trading Company and used to store garbanzo beans. The fire spread to and destroyed a nearby elevator owned by plaintiff Columbia Grain, resulting in $4.3 million in damages to Columbia. In this litigation, Columbia seeks to recover those losses from Hinrichs.

Columbia claims that the fire in the Hinrichs' elevator resulted from an overheated bearing that set fire to garbanzo bean dust that had accumulated in the top room of the elevator, known as the head house. Columbia asserts that Hinrichs' personnel ignored warning signs, and failed to keep the bearings properly greased and the head house properly cleaned.

The elevator is basically a tower. A bucket elevator scoops up the grain or beans at the lower level and lifts them to a distributor or sorter that conveys the material to the proper bin or silo. This apparatus has metal bearings that periodically must be lubricated due to the constant friction while the elevator is operating.

The last work done in the Hinrichs' elevator was on Friday May 10th, two days before the fire. On that day, Hinrichs' maintenance manager Gary Henderson was working with employees Brad Hobson and Jeff Pontious, and they ran the elevator most of the day, leaving at roughly 4:00 p.m. They testified that they turned off all the equipment, and their testimony is confirmed by the power company records. About two days later, on Sunday, smoke was seen coming from the Hinrichs' elevator, and then flames. The fire quickly spread to the nearby Columbia elevator. Both were a total loss.

Hinrichs has filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that no evidence supports Columbia's theory about how the fire started. Columbia responds that the record contains evidence that creates questions of fact on the origin of the fire, precluding summary judgment.

ANALYSIS

Hinrichs' motion hinges entirely on excluding the opinions of Columbia's expert, Michael Fitz about the origins of the fire. If Fitz's opinions stand, there are clearly sufficient questions of fact to preclude summary judgment. Accordingly, the Court will focus exclusively on Fitz's opinion.

Fitz has long experience and extensive education in the study of fires. In this motion, Hinrichs does not challenge his credentials or qualifications to testify about the origins of this fire, but rather challenges the reliability of his opinions.

Based on his study of the evidence in this case, Fitz concluded "that this fire started in the upper level of the head house from an overheated bearing on Friday afternoon, ignited garbanzo dust and wood members, smoldered for two days and then grew into a large fire during the high winds on Sunday afternoon." See Fitz Affidavit (Dkt. No. 38-1) at ΒΆ 18. Hinrichs argues that Fitz's opinion is pure speculation without factual support. The Court will examine ...


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