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Fels v. Ruttenberg

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 8, 2017




         This 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'[1] 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 In their summary judgment memorandum the plaintiffs have withdrawn and agreed to the dismissal of their tort theory of liability.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.[2] 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.

         Summary 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. at 322.

         I must evaluate whether there is a material issue of disputed fact through the lens of the applicable burden of proof. Anderson, 477 247-48. 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.

         With respect to the Motion for Summary Judgment, I find as follows:

         1. The 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[3], 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.

         2. 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.

         3. In 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.

         4. 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).

         5. The 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.[4]

         6. The 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.

         7. 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.

         8. The plaintiffs did not have any fire insurance or property damage insurance coverage on the building. See Deposition of William Fels, p. A-134.

         9. The 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 ...

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