James Blasius v. Angel Automotive Inc.
Filed opinion of the court by Judge Blakey. The judgment of the district court is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Daniel A. Manion, Circuit Judge; Ilana Diamond Rovner, Circuit Judge and John Robert Blakey, District Court Judge. [6789585-1]  [15-2994]
United States Court of Appeals
For the Seventh Circuit
ANGEL AUTOMOTIVE, INC.,
Appeal from the United States District Court for the
Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division.
No. 13‐CV‐00046‐JVB‐CAN — Joseph S. Van Bokkelen, Judge.
ARGUED FEBRUARY 19, 2016 — DECIDED OCTOBER 12, 2016
Before MANION and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and BLAKEY,
BLAKEY, District Judge. In July 2009, Appellant James
Blasius purchased a used 2005 Ford Excursion. In June 2012,
Blasius entrusted Appellee Angel Automotive, Inc. (“AAI”)
with upgrading the vehicle to make it “safe” and “reliable.”
* Of the Northern District of Illinois, sitting by designation.
Blasius alleges that AAI negligently betrayed that trust
when, one day and about 200 miles after pick up, the vehicle
caught fire and was destroyed. The district court granted
summary judgment for AAI after concluding that: (1) Blasius
failed to present evidence that AAI’s work proximately
caused the fire; and (2) the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did
not apply. Blasius appealed. For the reasons explained be‐
low, the decision of the district court is REVERSED.
Background & Procedural History
In July 2009, Blasius, a resident of Michigan, purchased a
used 2005 Ford Excursion for towing his motorcycle racing
trailer. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 1;
Blasius Dep. 19:1–7. Over the next three years, Blasius in‐
vested in approximately $70,000 worth of parts, accessories,
and modifications to the vehicle.1 Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot.
Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 4.
In the summer of 2012, Blasius next contacted AAI, an
automotive repair shop located in Elkhart, Indiana, to fur‐
ther improve the Excursion’s performance. Blasius outlined
several components he wanted inspected and improved and
gave AAI an “open checkbook” for the repairs. Pl.’s Resp.
Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 8; Blasius Dep. 37:19–
22. These components included, among others, the vehicle’s
engine, suspension, turbocharger, intake and exhaust mani‐
folds, exhaust, transmission, brakes, spark plugs, and oil
pump. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 8.
1 These improvements included, among others, a new sound system,
tires, suspension, fuel system, batteries, transmission, and turbocharger.
Blasius Dep. 15:1–36:25. These initial modifications were completed by
the end of May 2012. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 8.
AAI not only agreed to Blasius’ requests, but also “gave the
truck a complete once‐over” and recommended additional
modifications, which Blasius approved. Angel Dep. 14:2–3,
In June 2012, AAI mechanics Thomas Angel and Daniel
Fine performed the desired work. Id. at 11:10–13; Fine Dep.
62:20–22. Due to the extent of Blasius’ requested modifica‐
tions, AAI first removed the Excursion’s body from its chas‐
sis. Angel Dep. 14:2–22; Fine Dep. 43:14–15. This process in‐
volved disconnecting (and eventually reconnecting) the ve‐
hicle’s various fluid transfer lines, including coolant lines,
brake lines, and power steering hoses. Angel Dep. 15:11–15.
After removing the vehicle body, AAI’s overhaul includ‐
ed replacing the Excursion’s fuel pump, auxiliary fuel filter,
and fuel lines. Id. at 19:6–9, 19:23–20:3, 27:2–4, 43:11–20; Fine
Dep. 23:18–20, 29:6–11, 36:22–37:2, 39:20–40:5. The new fuel
lines ran from the fuel tank at the rear of the vehicle to the
newly installed fuel pump, to an auxiliary fuel filter, and
then finally to the topside of the driver’s side of the engine.
Angel Dep. 22:9–23:20. A return line was run out of the en‐
gine back to the fuel tank. Id. at 24:1–6.
AAI originally promised to complete work by Thursday,
June 21, 2012. Id. at 44:20–46:2; Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ.
J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 12. On June 20, 2012, however, AAI in‐
formed Blasius that the Excursion was not ready for pick up.
Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 12. Aware
that Blasius desired to take the truck on an upcoming trip to
northern Michigan, Angel promised Blasius that the vehicle
would be available the following Thursday, June 28, 2012.
Angel Dep. 45:1–3, 47:3–10. At his deposition, Angel testified
that these circumstances created a “heightened sense of ur‐
gency” within AAI to complete the repairs. Id. at 48:9–16.
Angel testified that, by the time AAI finished working on the
Excursion, there was little additional work that could have
been done to the vehicle. Id. at 46:24–47:2.
On June 28, 2012, Blasius picked up his Excursion and
drove approximately 200 miles back to his Michigan home.2
Id. at 48:17–19; Blasius Dep. 44:17–19. Upon arrival, Blasius
emailed AAI and complained of new or persisting issues
with the vehicle’s performance. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot.
Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 13. Blasius described “limited pull
off the line,” heavy exhaust smoke, and a “rattling or ping‐
ing or knocking” at low rpm’s. Angel responded on the
morning of June 29, 2012 and promised to resolve the issues,
but did not discourage Blasius from driving the truck in the
interim. Id.; Angel Dep. 51:12–18.
Later on June 29, 2012, Blasius left his home in the Excur‐
sion with his motorcycle trailer in tow. Blasius Dep. 46:12–
21. Blasius’ adult son and his son’s friend were passengers.
Id. at 5:13–17. At his deposition, Blasius testified that, after
traveling approximately 12 miles, Blasius’ son observed
smoke emanating from the vehicle’s interior vents. Id. at
47:1–7. As a result, after approximately 30 seconds, Blasius
began to pull over to the shoulder. Id. at 47:15–17. As Blasius
looked in his review mirror, he observed additional smoke
behind the vehicle. Id. at 47:18–23. Blasius also discovered
that his parking, emergency, and trailer brakes were non‐
responsive. Id. at 48:6–49:15. Smoke billowed into the vehicle
2 Angel testified that, prior to transferring the Excursion back to Blasius,
he and Fine also test drove the vehicle. Angel Dep. 47:15–25.
cabin as Blasius swerved on and off the shoulder in an at‐
tempt to slow the vehicle. Id. at 49:16–23.
The Excursion eventually came to a stop after approxi‐
mately three‐quarters of a mile. Id. at 50:1–3. After escaping
the vehicle, Blasius specifically observed burning diesel fuel
running along the bottom and sides of the vehicle. Id. at
50:14–52:1. Blasius unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the
fire with multiple fire extinguishers. Id. at 52:23–55:14. Sadly,
by the time firefighters arrived, the vehicle was destroyed
and the motorcycle trailer was damaged. Id. at 68:13–14; Pl.’s
Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 14.
After the fire was finally extinguished, the Excursion was
loaded onto a flatbed wrecker and taken to a nearby storage
facility. Blasius Dep. 66:3–6. When Blasius notified Angel of
the situation, Angel admitted to Blasius that he believed a
fuel leak may have caused the fire. Id. at 55:1–5.
Shortly thereafter, James Raad, a certified vehicle fire in‐
vestigator, conducted an inspection of the vehicle remnants.
Raad Aff. 1. Raad determined that the fire originated under
the vehicle, but could not ascertain conclusive evidence of its
exact cause. Id.
On January 22, 2013, Blasius filed suit against AAI in the
Northern District of Indiana for negligence and breach of
contract. Compl., ECF No. 1. In July 2013, Blasius’ own ex‐
pert, Adam Hooker, inspected the disassembled remains of
the vehicle, and rendered various conclusions about the
cause of the fire. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53,
Ex. 11 at 1. Among the conclusions in his report, Hooker
found that the diesel and brake fluid systems (worked on
during AAI’s overhaul) were “more likely related to the
cause of the fire” and the “diesel fuel or brake fluid” was the
“first fuel(s) ignited during the progression of the fire.” Id.
On March 4, 2015, the district court granted AAI’s mo‐
tion for summary judgment. Op. and Order, ECF No. 68. In
its ruling, the court found that Blasius “failed to present evi‐
dence showing that [AAI’s] modification to the [Excursion]
caused the fire.” Id. at 5. Additionally, the court held that the
doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply. Id. at 6–7. Blasius
challenges both aspects of the district court’s ruling.
We review the district court’s grant of summary judg‐
ment de novo. Hotel 71 Mezz Lender LLC v. Nat’l Ret. Fund,
778 F.3d 593, 601 (7th Cir. 2015). Summary judgment is ap‐
propriate only where there are no genuine issues of material
fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter
of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In making this determination,
we view all evidence in the light most favorable to, and de‐
rive all reasonable inferences in favor of, the nonmoving par‐
ty. Cairel v. Alderden, 821 F.3d 823, 830 (7th Cir. 2016). Sum‐
mary judgment is warranted only if, after doing so, we de‐
termine that no jury could reasonably find in the nonmoving
party’s favor. McDonald v. Hardy, 821 F.3d 882, 888 (7th Cir.
Under Indiana law, proximate cause “is an essential ele‐
ment of a negligence action.” Carson v. ALL Erection & Crane
Rental Corp., 811 F.3d 993, 998 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Hassan
v. Begley, 836 N.E.2d 303, 307 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)).
Proximate cause in Indiana negligence law has
two aspects. The first—causation in fact—is a
factual inquiry for the jury. If the injury would
not have occurred without the defendant’s
negligent act or omission, there is causation in
fact. A second component of proximate cause
is the scope of liability. That issue, which is al‐
so for the trier of fact, turns largely on whether
the injury is a natural and probable conse‐
quence, which in the light of the circumstances,
should have been foreseen or anticipated. Un‐
der this doctrine, liability may not be imposed
on an original negligent actor who sets into
motion a chain of events if the ultimate injury
was not reasonably foreseeable as the natural
and probable consequence of the act or omis‐
City of Gary ex rel. King v. Smith & Wesson Corp., 801
N.E.2d 1222, 1243–44 (Ind. 2003) (internal citations and quo‐
tations omitted). Proximate cause “must be based upon
provable facts and cannot be based upon mere guess, conjec‐
ture, surmise, possibility or speculation.” Collins v. Am. Op‐
tometric Assʹn, 693 F.2d 636, 640 (7th Cir. 1982). In other
words, the factual evidence supplied must reflect some “rea‐
sonable certainty or probability.” Mr. Bults, Inc. v. Orlando,
990 N.E.2d 1, 5 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013).
In support of its summary judgment ruling, the district
court cited the “dearth of evidence” connecting Blasius’ ve‐
hicle fire with AAI’s repair work, and stated that
“[h]ypothesis alone is not enough to subject [AAI] to liabil‐
ity.” Op. and Order 5, ECF No. 68. Our review of the record,
however, demands a different conclusion.
Hooker’s written report—which accompanied Blasius’
response to AAI’s summary judgment motion—noted the
“extent of the disassembly work that Angel Automotive had
to perform in order to install various upgraded components
and to replace the fuel lines.” Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ.
J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1. According to Hooker, to achieve
this requisite level of disassembly, numerous connections
“had to be disconnected and reconnected.” Id. Hooker’s ob‐
servations were confirmed by both Angel and Fine. Angel
Dep. 14:2–22, 15:11–15; Fine Dep. 43:14–15. Hooker further
noted that these connections “were located within numerous
fluid moving systems within the vehicle” and that the fluids
contained therein—diesel fuel, power steering fluid, brake
fluid, motor oil, window washer fluid, and anti‐freeze—“can
all be ignited via hot engine and exhaust components.” Pl.’s
Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1.
Hooker opined that these fluid systems “were all inter‐
acted with during the process of Angel Automotive complet‐
ing their work,” and that the misalignment, forcing, cross‐
threading, over torqueing, or under torqueing of any fluid
system connections “could lead to a leak that under the
proper conditions … would produce a fire.” Id. Hooker con‐
cluded that, absent “documentation that the proper torque
values were applied to all connections within the vehicle, the
potential of a leak in one of these systems cannot be elimi‐
nated as a possible cause of this fire.” Id. at 2.
Hooker’s report further concluded that the fire originated
“in an area that encompasses the left rear portion of the en‐
gine compartment, the bulkhead area, and the area in be‐
tween the transmission and the left side body and door pan‐
els.” Id. at 2. The report highlighted that “the fuel lines lead‐
ing from the fuel tank to the fuel injection pump are located
in this area,” as are the “brake system master cylinder and
reservoir”—all of which were “manipulated and/or removed
and reinstalled” during AAI’s work on the vehicle. Id. Ac‐
cording to Hooker, as noted above, these systems were
“more likely related to the cause of the fire” and “diesel fuel
or brake fluid” was the “first fuel(s) ignited during the pro‐
gression of the fire.” Id.
The district court’s ruling failed to address any portion of
this written report. Instead, the court highlighted a selective,
two‐page portion of Hooker’s 59‐page deposition transcript
in which Hooker did not pronounce, in response to certain
questions, that the fire was “more likely than not” caused by
AAI’s repair work. Op. and Order 5, ECF No. 68. This under‐
inclusive analysis misconstrues Hooker’s overall assessment.
A comprehensive reading of Hooker’s deposition, on the
other hand, confirms that, time and again, his testimony re‐
inforced the expert opinions set forth in his written report.
During questioning, Hooker maintained that a fluid system
leak constituted the “most likely scenario” for the June 29,
2012 fire. Hooker Dep. 45:13–46:1. He further agreed that
“[b]ut for the removal and the manipulation and disassem‐
bly” of fluid transfer lines by AAI, the fire would not have
occurred. Id. at 53:24–54:3.
Admittedly, Hooker also noted some limits to his overall
assessment. Hooker acknowledged, for example, that due to
the delayed nature of his examination, he did not possess
definitive proof of causation:
Q. In your expert opinion, what caused this
A. I feel that this fire was caused by a possible
leak in the fluid system that came in contact
with a heated portion of the exhaust system.
Q. So is it your testimony that you were able to
determine a cause of this fire?
A. No, I was not. I have no proof of that and
that’s why I did not.
Q. So it is not your expert opinion that the fire
was caused by a leak in the fluid system?
A. I feel it’s potentially caused by that, but I
don’t know that because I didn’t see any of this
Q. I’m just trying to determine whether or not
your report is just listing a possible cause of the
fire or it’s your expert opinion based on your
experience that this is the cause of the fire in
A. This is my opinion of what potentially may
have taken place. I don’t know what took place
and I don’t know what it looked like because
there was nothing for me to really look at. Does
that, does that help?
Q. Yeah, I believe so. So just so we’re clear, you
believe that it is possible that a fuel leak caused
the fire but you were unable to determine
whether or not that actually occurred in this
A. I believe a fluid leak, not a fuel. A fluid leak.
One of them.
Q. Possibly caused the fire.
Hooker Dep. 45:13–46:1, 46:14–47:4 (emphasis added). Upon
further questioning, however, Hooker clarified both the
scope and basis of his position:
Q. Is it fair to say that something that Angel
did was not done properly to cause this fire?
A. That’s my, that’s my thoughts on this, is that
some of the work that Angel did led to this
event taking place.
Q. “This event” being the fire.
Q. But because you didn’t have an opportunity
to actually inspect the vehicle intact, you can’t
say 100 percent what it was.
Q. So what, what would you say your opinion
is as to the cause of the fire in this case?
A. My, my opinion of what may have caused
this is a leak in one of the fluid systems that
were involved in Angel Automotive’s disas‐
sembly, replacement, and reassembly of those
fluid moving systems causing a leak. Not caus‐
ing a leak; having a leak. And finding an igni‐
tion source within that vehicle. My, my [sic]
thought is is [sic] that there’s a portion of the
exhaust that I saw in one of, those are Angel
Automotive’s photos I think, of the work done
that shows a portion of the exhaust that wasn’t
insulated? So that, also coupled with what
kind of damage I could see on some of Mr.
Raad’s photos kind of, of [sic] gave me that
very broad area where I felt the fire may have
Q. Is it true in speaking with Mr. Blasius that
he told you he saw diesel fuel leaking from the
A. Yes, and that also—I should have said that.
And also that Mr. Blasius’ conversation with
me, it also plays to leading me back into that
area which helps me find kind of increased
damage in that area, plus that one portion of
exposed exhaust system in there.
Q. So just to be clear, is it your opinion that if
diesel fuel or one of the other liquids, whether
it be coolant or brake fluid or oil, if one of those
fluids leaked … that those fluids could be ig‐
nited by the exhaust, the exposed exhaust?
A. Yes, I think that is possible.
Q. And is it your opinion that that is more than
likely what occurred in this case?
A. Yes, that’s my most likely thought on what led
this fire to happen.
Q. If Angel had not done the work on this ve‐
hicle that it did, do you believe that this vehicle
would have caught fire as it did where it did?
A. Yeah, I donʹt know that but it, in the chain of
events it, with all of that stuff being manipulat‐
ed by them and then shortly after this fire tak‐
ing place, when I look at that as a whole, yes. I
think that if that work hadn’t had been done, this
exact thing probably would not have happened.
Hooker Dep. 53:24–56:4 (emphasis added).
When Hooker’s deposition testimony is considered in its
entirety, his reluctance to use the exact phrase “more likely
than not” better reflects confusion regarding the adverse
questioning (and the legal nuance of burdens of proof) ra‐
ther than any meaningful hesitancy on the reasonable prob‐
ability of causation:
Q. So in your opinion is it more likely than not
that Angel Automotive’s work caused the sub‐
A. I think it’s possible, yes.
Q. So your testimony is it’s possible that they
were the cause of the subject fire, not that it’s
more likely than not. Is that correct?
A. I didn’t understand that question. Is it pos‐
sible versus more likely than not? What’s the
Q. Possible means it’s a possibility.
A. It absolutely is a possibility.
Q. And that’s your testimony. It’s a possibility.
Or is it more likely than not the cause?
A. I, I don’t see—I’m struggling with the two.
They kind of seem very close to me. “More
likely than not” is a “possibility.” I don’t, I
don’t understand the question, I guess. I abso‐
lutely think it’s possible, if that’s what you’re
asking. I absolutely think it’s possible.
Q. More likely than not simply means that it’s
more than 50 percent likely that that occurred.
Or is it still your testimony that—
A. Can I think it’s possible and more likely
[Blasius’ attorney]: I don’t think he under‐
stands the question.
[Hooker]: I don’t. I do not understand that. I
absolutely think it’s possible. Are we going to
put a percentage on how [confident] I am in
thinking it’s possible?
Q. I’m just trying to determine whether or not
you believe it’s a possibility that their work
A. I absolutely believe that.
Q. Or that it’s your expert opinion that their
work did cause it.
A. I don’t know if it caused it.
Q. It’s just that it’s possible based on the time‐
line that it caused the fire?
A. More than just the timeline. The timeline
and the extent of the work that’s been done,
yes. I, yes. I absolutely think it’s possible.
Hooker Dep. 57:1–58:15. In assessing the above testimony,
we must remember that Hooker’s expertise lies in the field
of fire investigation, not law. As such, it is improper to reject
the fair import of his testimony based upon an apparent ina‐
bility to decipher legal intricacies with which trained attor‐
neys so often struggle.
Moreover, we must remain cognizant of the proper pur‐
pose for which Blasius offers Hooker’s expert opinions re‐
garding causation. At the summary judgment phase, Hooker
merely helps Blasius get to a fact finder; Hooker does not,
however, serve as the fact finder. To achieve the former, a
plaintiff need only produce evidence sufficient to potentially
persuade any reasonable jury. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)
(“[S]ummary judgment will not lie … if the evidence is such
that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmov‐
ing party.”) (emphasis added). In essence, Appellee asks us
to raise this standard and require that a plaintiff, at the
summary judgment stage, show actual persuasion of a par‐
ticular person to a particular degree of certainty. Obviously,
we decline that invitation here.
At summary judgment, Hooker’s expert opinions regard‐
ing causation remain sufficient, especially since they find
further support in the record, including Angel’s own admis‐
sion to Blasius that Angel thought a fuel leak may have
caused the fire (a conclusion based upon Angel’s personal
involvement in working on the vehicle). Angel Dep. 55:1–5.
Such evidence, in conjunction with Hooker’s written report
and Blasius’ personal observations of the fire on scene, goes
well beyond the district court’s characterization of Blasius’
evidence of causation as only “speculation” or mere “hy‐
pothesis.” See Newell v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 36 F.3d 576,
579 (7th Cir. 1994) (“A probability of negligence may be
supported by expert testimony or common sense infer‐
ence.”). Construing all reasonable inferences in Blasius’ fa‐
vor, as we must, such evidence furnishes a sufficient factual
basis from which a reasonable jury could find in favor of
Blasius on the causation element of his negligence action.
Appellee’s contrary reliance on Kincade v. Mac Corp., 773
N.E.2d 909 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002) is misplaced. In Kincade, a
store clerk sued the designers, manufacturers, and installers
of a trash compactor system for injuries she received from a
fall on a set of access stairs. Id. at 911. At the summary
judgment stage, defects in the clerk’s case were two‐fold.
First, the clerk admitted that she did not know what caused
her feet to slip out from under her, and even worse, present‐
ed conflicting testimony regarding possible culprits. Id. at
912. Second, the clerk’s theories narrowed responsibility to
the platform and access stairs leading to the trash compactor,
not the compactor itself. Id. The defendants at issue, howev‐
er, only had personal involvement in the latter. Id. As a re‐
sult, no question of material fact existed as to whether the
clerk’s injuries were proximately caused “by any action or
inaction on the part of any of the three defendants.” Id. at
Here, unlike the store clerk, Blasius provided a specific,
consistent theory—supported by expert testimony and other
evidence—regarding the cause of his vehicle fire: a leak in
the Excursion’s fluid systems that came in contact with a
heated portion of the exhaust system. Hooker Dep. 45:14–16.
Furthermore, Blasius tied the source of his injury directly to
AAI. The record shows that, to complete the extensive up‐
grades to Blasius’ vehicle, AAI disconnected and reconnect‐
ed the fluid moving systems. Angel Dep. 15:11–15. Although
uncertainty remains as to which fluid first ignited, such am‐
biguity is immaterial since AAI interacted with all of them
immediately preceding the fire.
Appellee’s reference to our decision in Trask‐Morton v.
Motel 6 Operating L.P., 534 F.3d 672 (7th Cir. 2008), is equally
unavailing. In Trask‐Morton, the plaintiff checked into an In‐
dianapolis Motel 6 alone. Id. at 674. Once inside, she took a
dose of muscle relaxant and fell asleep. Id. The plaintiff had
no memory of what occurred between the time she fell
asleep and when she regained consciousness the following
evening. Id. Nevertheless, two days later, the plaintiff re‐
ported that she had been sexually assaulted. Id. at 676. The
plaintiff filed suit against Motel 6, alleging that the hotel
failed to provide adequate security. Id. Due to the plaintiff’s
lack of direct memory and the absence of other circumstan‐
tial evidence, however, the district court found there was in‐
sufficient proof for a reasonable jury to conclude that a sex
crime had actually been committed. According to the court,
without “facts to support [the plaintiff’s] allegation that an
assault occurred in the first place,” the plaintiff “could not
connect the injuries she alleged occurred as the result of the
assault to any breach of duty by Motel 6.” Id. Affirming the
lower court’s decision, we held that “a jury could not find
that Morton was sexually assaulted … without resorting to
impermissible speculation.” Id. at 679.
This case is not Trask‐Morton. There, plaintiff was unable
to prove that an injury actually occurred, and, without a
predicate injury, there can be no proximate cause. Here, AAI
does not contest that Blasius’ Excursion was destroyed by
fire. Thus, while a genuine issue of material fact remains
concerning causation, the undisputed presence of an actual
injury places the current controversy beyond the import of
Res Ipsa Loquitur
Cases such as Kincade highlight that “negligence may not
be inferred from the mere fact that an injury occurred.”
Maroules v. Jumbo, Inc., 452 F.3d 639, 642 (7th Cir. 2006). Nev‐
ertheless, under certain circumstances, negligence “may be
inferred from the circumstances surrounding the injury.” Id.
(emphasis added). The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur—
translated, “the thing speaks for itself”—recognizes that
“certain accidents are so unusual that the party shown to be
in exclusive control of the injuring object ought to be held
responsible unless that party can offer a reasonable explana‐
tion.” Newell v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 36 F.3d 576, 579 (7th
In other words, res ipsa loquitur “is a shortcut to a negli‐
gence claim.” Maroules, 452 F.3d at 642. It “does not require a
plaintiff to submit evidence of causation” because it is “a
doctrine of common sense. It allows a trier of fact to draw an
inference of negligence when evidence of causation is lack‐
ing.” Id. at 644. As we said in Maroules,
[t]o establish this inference of negligence, the
plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) that the injuring
instrumentality was within the exclusive man‐
agement and control of the defendant, and (2)
that the accident is of the type that does not
ordinarily happen if those who have the man‐
agement and control exercise proper care …
Once the plaintiff has met the burden of
demonstrating the control and due care prongs
of res ipsa loquitur, the doctrine operates to
permit an inference of negligence based upon
the circumstantial evidence.
Id. at 642. Satisfying the prima facie elements, however, does
not automatically “hand victory” to the plaintiff. Id. at 643.
The inference … is just that—a plaintiff does
not win [his] case merely because [he] has met
the res ipsa loquitur requirements. A successful
res ipsa loquitur showing simply creates an in‐
ference which the trier of fact may choose to
accept or not.
Id. at 642–43 (internal citations omitted); Sweeney v. Erving,
228 U.S. 233, 240, 33 S. Ct. 416, 418, 57 L. Ed. 815 (1913) (“In
our opinion, res ipsa loquitur means that the facts of the oc‐
currence warrant the inference of negligence, not that they
compel such an inference; that they furnish circumstantial
evidence of negligence where direct evidence of it may be
lacking, but it is evidence to be weighed, not necessarily to
be accepted as sufficient; that they call for explanation or re‐
buttal, not necessarily that they require it; that they make a
case to be decided by the jury, not that they forestall the ver‐
In the end, whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur ap‐
plies is a mixed question of law and fact. Maroules, 452 F.3d
at 643. The question of law is whether the plaintiff’s evi‐
dence includes all of the underlying elements of res ipsa lo‐
quitur; the ultimate determination for the trier of fact at trial
“is whether the permissible inference is to be drawn.” Id.
Exclusive Management and Control
Here, the district court held that res ipsa loquitur did not
apply because the Excursion was in Blasius’ possession on
June 29, 2012 and thus not “under the exclusive control of
[AAI] at the time of the fire[.]” Op. and Order 7, ECF No. 68.
Such a holding misinterprets the first prong of the res ipsa
The “concept of control under Indiana’s res ipsa loquitur
case law is expansive.” Maroules, 452 F.3d at 643. To prove
“exclusive control,” a plaintiff “simply is required to show
either that a specific instrument caused the injury and that
the defendant had control over that instrument or that any
reasonably probable causes for the injury were under the control of
the defendant.” Id. (emphasis added).
Notably, when “used in the res ipsa loquitur context, the
term ‘control’ does not require actual physical dominion
over an object.” Newell, 36 F.3d at 580. Thus, “a defendant
need not be in control of the causative instrumentality at the
exact moment of injury, provided the defendant was the last
person in control.” Maroules, 452 F.3d at 643 (emphasis add‐
ed). A “product which explodes long after its shipment from
the manufacturer may still be, for purposes of res ipsa loqui‐
tur, in the control of the manufacturer if the probability of
other causes is small.” Newell, 36 F.3d at 580.
In Newell, the plaintiff filed suit against Westinghouse
Electric Corporation, an elevator maintenance company, af‐
ter a malfunctioning elevator in the Indiana Bell Telephone
Building slammed shut on her. Id. at 577. Westinghouse ar‐
gued that, because several Indiana Bell employees main‐
tained access to the elevator control room between the de‐
fendant’s maintenance calls, the plaintiff could not establish
that Westinghouse “was in sole control of the elevators” at
the time of her accident. Id. at 580. According to Westing‐
house, such joint control raised “the possibility of negligence
by another party,” and thereby barred an inference of negli‐
gence on the part of the defendant. Id.
Rejecting this argument, we held that Westinghouse’s
negligence constituted the “most probable cause” of the
plaintiff’s injuries. Id. Although Indiana Bell employees pos‐
sessed access to the elevator control room, only Westing‐
house conducted service and maintenance on the elevator. Id.
Because the accident derived from a mechanical failure, ac‐
cess alone was “of little significance” absent evidence that
that the employees “in fact engaged in any repair or mainte‐
nance themselves.” Id.
Here, as in Newell, AAI was the sole provider of service
and maintenance of the Excursion within the relevant time
frame. Although Blasius held possession of (and thus access
to) the vehicle at the time it ignited, the record is devoid of
any evidence that anyone other than AAI performed any
material repair or maintenance work of their own between
the time Blasius picked up the Excursion on June 28, 2012
and the moment it burst into flames. Moreover, while the
parties dispute the precise cause of the ignition, there is no
evidence indicating that the failure, and resulting fire, were
anything but mechanical in nature.
Regardless, “the possibility of multiple causes or multiple
defendants does not automatically defeat the application of
res ipsa loquitur.” Maroules, 452 F.3d at 643 (emphasis added).
In Maroules, a motorist brought suit against the owner of a
trucking company and its driver after a wheel broke free
from a truck trailer and crashed through the front passenger
side of the plaintiff’s car. Id. at 641. The defendants denied
that they possessed exclusive control of the injuring instru‐
mentality and contended that they “had no role in manufac‐
turing the trailer or its wheel studs”; “had no control over
the inspection and maintenance of the trailer or its wheel
studs prior to the time that [the defendants] purchased the
trailer”; and “did not maintain, service, or repair its trailers
and their parts, but instead relinquishe[d] control every time
it sen[t] its trailers to an outside third party maintenance
company to do this work.” Id.
We conceded that these facts presented “any number of
alternative theories for the accident: the stud manufacturer
could have negligently or knowingly manufactured defec‐
tive studs, the maintenance business could have used a
faulty power tool to tighten the bolts, or a vandal could have
sabotaged the truck wheels.” Id. Nonetheless, we held that
“the possibility that a third party may have negligently
manufactured, installed, or maintained the studs does not
preclude a finding that [the defendant] had control over the
injuring instrumentality.” Id. at 644. We stated that res ipsa
loquitur does not demand that the plaintiff “exclude every
other possibility other than the defendant’s negligence as a
cause of the injury.” Id. Instead, “a plaintiff may point to
several alternative causes of injury and allow the jury to de‐
termine which, if any, instrumentality caused the injury.” Id.
Ultimately, at trial, a plaintiff “must show only that the
likelihood of other causes is so reduced ‘that the greater
probability lies at the defendant’s door.’” Newell, 36 F.3d at
580 (quoting Fowler V. Harper, The Law of Torts § 19.7, at 46
(2d ed. 1986)). Indeed, to hold otherwise “would emascu‐
late” the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Id. at 581 (quotations omit‐
ted). It is only when a plaintiff cannot “identify any potential
causes and show that they were in the exclusive control of
the defendant” that res ipsa loquitur fails to apply. Maroules,
452 F.3d at 644 (emphasis added).
In this case, Hooker stated in his written report that the
Excursion’s fuel and brake systems were “more likely” the
cause of the fire. Pl.’s Resp. Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No.
53, Ex. 11 at 2. During his deposition, Hooker reiterated that
a fluid system leak constituted the “most likely scenario” for
the June 29, 2012 blaze, and agreed that “[b]ut for the re‐
moval and the manipulation and disassembly” of fluid
transfer lines by AAI, the fire would not have occurred.
Hooker Dep. 45:13–46:1, 53:24–54:3. Hooker deemed this the
“most likely” cause of the fire and opined that, had AAI’s
repair work not been done, the accident “probably would
not have happened.” 55:17–56:4. For the purposes of sum‐
mary judgment, the record in this case clearly satisfies the
requirements outlined in Maroules and Newell.
Appellee’s reliance upon Slease v. Hughbanks, 684 N.E.2d
496 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), is also misplaced. In Slease, the
plaintiff, a steelworker, underwent ankle surgery after a
workplace fall. Id. at 498. The next evening, the plaintiff no‐
ticed a burn on his left thigh. Id. Believing that the burn oc‐
curred during the surgery, the plaintiff filed a suit against
the hospital for medical malpractice. Id. The Court of Ap‐
peals of Indiana granted summary judgment to the hospital
because the plaintiff failed to “point to an instrument in the
control of the defendant which was a probable cause of his
burn.” Id. at 500. Although the plaintiff pointed to a “bovie
pad” as a potential culprit, the court found that “there [was]
nothing in the designated evidence to show that this instru‐
ment [had] the potential to cause a burn such as [the plain‐
tiff] received.” Id.
The record before this Court succeeds where the record
in Slease failed. Here, unlike in Slease, Blasius offered several
sources of evidence indicating that a “leak in the [Excur‐
sion’s] fluid system that came in contact with a heated por‐
tion of the exhaust system” was the cause of the vehicle fire.
Hooker Dep. 45:14–16. For example, Hooker’s report stated
that fluids within the Excursion’s fluid system could “all be
ignited via hot engine and exhaust components.” Pl.’s Resp.
Def.’s Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 53, Ex. 11 at 1. Moreover,
Hooker concluded that the fire originated in the area of the
engine compartment where “the fuel lines leading from the
fuel tank to the fuel injection pump” as well as the “brake
system master cylinder and reservoir” were located—all of
which were “manipulated and/or removed and reinstalled”
during AAI’s work on the vehicle. Id. at 2. Hooker also
pointed to photographs of the vehicle’s exhaust “that
show[ed] a portion of the exhaust that wasn’t insulated” in
that area. Hooker Dep. 54:23–24. In light of the record here,
Slease is irrelevant.
Nature of Accident
Because the district court held that Blasius failed to meet
the first prong of the res ipsa loquitur inquiry, it did not ad‐
dress whether the fire at issue ordinarily occurs absent the
exercise of proper care. Based upon the record, we find this
prong satisfied as well.
It should go without saying that vehicle fires of the kind
seen here do not occur as a matter of course.3 We are uncon‐
vinced by Appellee’s arguments to the contrary. Appellee
claims that “[p]arts wear down. Road hazards loosen con‐
nections, bend parts and can create leaks and openings. The
outdoor elements also affect the operation of the vehicle.”
Appellee’s Br. 15. Appellee ignores that, in this case, the
parts were new, and the record presents no evidence of road
hazards or inclement weather.
3 See, e.g. Alfa Romeo, Inc. v. S.S. Torinita, 499 F. Supp. 1272, 1279 (S.D.N.Y.
1980) (“A car spontaneously starting to burn may give rise to a permissi‐
ble inference that it was defective, and that a defect existed when it left
the hands of the defendant.”); Eversole v. Woods Acquisition, Inc., 135
S.W.3d 425, 429 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004) (“Common life experience … sug‐
gests it would be extraordinary for fuel lines to leak and cause a major
fire in a three‐year old vehicle, even with 52,000 miles of use, without an
intervening act of manipulation.”); Lee v. Hollywood Car & Truck Rental,
Inc., 485 So. 2d 843, 843 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1986); Hinckley v. La Mesa R.V.
Ctr., Inc., 205 Cal. Rptr. 22, 27 (Cal. Ct. App. 1984) (“[R]elatively new mo‐
tor vehicles are usually not destroyed by fire in the absence of negli‐
gence.”); Gherna v. Ford Motor Co., 55 Cal. Rptr. 94, 99 (Cal. Ct. App. 1966)
(“We think it is a matter of common knowledge that new automobiles
which have been properly driven for only about 1,600 miles do not sud‐
denly develop a fire in the engine compartment without someone’s neg‐
ligence.”); Seneca Ins. Co. v. Vogt Auto Serv., 573 N.E.2d 223, 225 (Ohio
Mun. Ct. 1991); cf. Ford Motor Co. v. Ridgway, 135 S.W.3d 598, 604 (Tex.
Rather, the record indicates that Blasius drove little more
than 200 miles before his newly overhauled Excursion burst
into flames. It cannot be reasonably said that such an event
constitutes an ordinary occurrence of automotive self‐
combustion. If such were the case, the automobile would
cease to serve as society’s fundamental mode of transporta‐
tion. The Government has a significant interest “in protect‐
ing the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” Rubin v.
Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476, 485, 115 S. Ct. 1585, 1591, 131
L. Ed. 2d 532 (1995). As a result, the design, manufacture,
production, use, and maintenance of vehicles are among
America’s most heavily regulated industries. See, e.g., Na‐
tional Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, as
amended, 49 U.S.C. § 30101, et seq.; Federal Motor Vehicle
Safety Standards, 49 C.F.R. § 571, et seq. Government agen‐
cies at the federal, state, and local level sponsor and secure
automobile safety. Given this pervasive level of public use
and attention, we reject AAI’s suggestion that the accident in
this case is a mere fact of everyday life.
Our ruling, of course, takes no position regarding Appel‐
lant’s ability to link his vehicle fire to AAI’s conduct by a
preponderance of the evidence at trial, nor do we opine up‐
on the strength of Appellant’s negligence claim as a whole.
Such a determination rightfully belongs in the hands of the
fact finder at trial. At present, it is enough to say that a genu‐
ine issue of material fact exists as to the proximate cause of
the fire that consumed Blasius’ vehicle, and that, for the
purpose of settling that dispute, Appellant is entitled to rely
on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
For these reasons, the judgment of the district court is
REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings con‐
sistent with this opinion.
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