United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
RICHARD A. LLORET UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
case involves a fire at a commercial building that caused
physical damage and a loss of rental income. The plaintiffs,
William and Bernice Fels, who own the building, originally
claimed that their tenants, the defendants, Alan Ruttenberg
and his business, LRD Graphics, Inc., negligently caused the
fire and were responsible for damages both in tort and under
the lease agreement. The defendants denied liability under
either theory. The defendants have moved for summary judgment
(Doc. No. 53), and the the plaintiffs' have opposed the
motion (Doc. No. 56). In their summary judgment memorandum
the plaintiffs have withdrawn and agreed to the dismissal of
their tort theory of liability. Doc. No. 56, at p. 8. They
rely entirely on their contract rights. Doc. No. 17, at p. 4,
¶¶23-28. The defendants contend that summary
judgment should be entered in favor of Alan Ruttenberg and
LRD Graphics, Inc. because the Plaintiffs have failed to
produce any evidence that LRD Graphics or Alan Ruttenberg are
liable under the lease. After careful consideration of the
submissions of the parties I will grant the defendants'
Motion for Summary Judgment.
judgment is warranted “if the pleadings, the discovery
and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show
that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and
the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). A factual issue is
material only if it might affect the outcome of the case
under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party must
show the absence of any genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).
I “must view the facts in the light most favorable to
the non-moving party, ” and make every reasonable
inference in that party's favor. Hugh v. Butler Cnty.
Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005).
Nevertheless, I may disregard allegations that are without
evidentiary support. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at
322-23; Jones v. UPS, 214 F.3d 402, 407 (3d Cir.
2000) (“unsupported allegations” cannot defeat
summary judgment). Absent a genuine issue of material fact,
summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S.
evaluate whether there is a material issue of disputed fact
through the lens of the applicable burden of proof.
Anderson, 477 U.S.at 247-48. Where the
non-moving party has the burden of proof on a claim at trial,
the moving party must show the absence of evidence in the
record on an essential element of the non-moving party's
claim. See Conoshenti v. Public Service Elec. & Gas
Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004); Wisniewski
v. Johns-Manville Corp., 812 F.2d 81, 84 n.2 (3d Cir.
1987). In response, the non-moving party cannot rely on the
existence of “some evidence” in support of its
claim; “there must be enough evidence to enable a jury
to reasonably find for the non-moving party on the
issue.” Witco Corp. v. Beekhuis, 38 F.3d 682,
686 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing to Anderson, 477 U.S. at
249). The inquiry is akin to the determination, on a motion
for judgment at trial, whether a reasonable finder of fact,
correctly applying the burden of proof, could decide against
the moving party based on the available evidence.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.
respect to the Motion for Summary Judgment, I find as
plaintiffs, owners of the property at 1100 Cottman Avenue,
Philadelphia, PA, have sued their former tenants LRD
Graphics, Inc., and the business' owner, Alan
Ruttenberg, for damages, alleging that the lease
agreement between the parties requires the lessee to pay for
damage caused to the building in a fire which occurred on
February 27, 2013. The defendants claim that the plain terms
of the lease agreement provide that the defendants are not
responsible for damages caused by accidental fire, and that
there is no evidence in the record that the fire started as a
result of Defendants' negligence.
Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants
continued to owe monthly lease payments to the plaintiffs
after the building was destroyed by the fire. The defendants
allege that the lease agreement provides that the lease ends
if the building becomes uninhabitable due to fire not caused
by the lessee's negligence, and the defendants therefore
owe no lease payments after February 27, 2013.
their response to the defendants' Motion for Summary
Judgment, the plaintiffs withdrew their negligence claim
(presumably Count IV of the First Amended Complaint, although
the response states only, “Plaintiffs respectfully
withdraw their negligence claim.” See Doc. 56,
p. 8). Therefore, the only remaining claim against the
defendants Alan Ruttenberg d/b/a LRD Graphics, Inc., and LRD
Graphics, Inc. is that found in Count I, Breach of Contract.
Doc. 17, ¶¶ 23-28. The plaintiffs contend that the
fire was the “fault” of the defendants, and the
contract holds the defendants liable for damage to the
building due to the fault of the defendants, or in the
alternative, that the contract is ambiguous as to this point.
Under Pennsylvania law, the question of whether an ambiguity
exists in a contract is to be determined by the Court as a
question of law. Com., State Highway and Bridge Authority
v. E.J. Albrecht Co., 430 A.2d 328, 330, citing 17A
C.J.S. Contracts §617 (1963); Merriam v.
Cedarbrook Realty, Inc., 404 A.2d 398 (Pa. Super. 1978).
“A contract is ambiguous if, and only if, it is
reasonably or fairly susceptible of different constructions
and is capable of being understood in more senses than one
and is obscure in meaning through indefiniteness of
expression or has a double meaning.” Id.
quoting 8 P.L.E. Contracts §146, (1971).
facts are not in dispute. On February 27, 2013, during the
night, a fire ignited inside the building. The building was
heavily damaged by fire, water, and smoke, and was no longer
usable as a printing business. The City of Philadelphia Fire
Department issued a Report of Fire Alarm, dated 2/25/2013,
which states that the cause of the fire was “electrical
equipment.” Alan Ruttenberg, owner of Defendant LRD
Graphics, went into the building with a forensic examiner
sent by his insurer, who showed Mr. Ruttenberg the area where
he (the forensic examiner) believed the fire had started,
where a power strip had melted to the floor. See
Deposition of Alan Ruttenberg, p. A-168.
plaintiffs have not hired a fire examiner or other forensic
expert, but believe the fire was started by the power strip.
See Deposition of William Fels, pp. A-135-36. They
did not obtain an independent inspection of the property to
determine the cause of the fire. See Deposition of
William Fels, p. A-137.
Neither party knows whether it was the plaintiffs or the
defendants who originally obtained the specific power strip
in question, nor does either party know how long the power
strip was located in the building. See Deposition of
William Fels, p. A-137; Deposition of Alan
Ruttenberg, p. A-173. Mr. Ruttenberg testified that this
particular power strip, located in the office, did not have
any of the heavy equipment used in the printing operation
plugged into it, rather, it serviced his computer, a small
calculator, and the phone system in his office. See
Deposition of Alan Ruttenberg, p. A-168.
plaintiffs did not have any fire insurance or property damage
insurance coverage on the building. See Deposition of
William Fels, p. A-134.
defendants obtained insurance for the personal property in
the building, as well as income protection, but did not
insure the building, on the advice of their insurance agent,
because neither Mr. Ruttenberg nor LRD Graphics owned ...