STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Millers Mutual Insurance Association,
an Illinois corporation,
Universal Contractors, Inc.,
an Iowa corporation, et al.,
Filed January 4, 2000
Freeborn County District Court
File No. C4971156
William A. Moeller, Dustan J. Cross, Gislason & Hunter, LLP, 2700 South Broadway, P.O. Box 458, New Ulm, MN 56073 (for appellant)
Kenneth R. White, Gerald L. Maschka, Farrish, Johnson & Maschka, 201 North Broad Street, P.O. Box 550, Mankato, MN 56002 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Short, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.
Millers Mutual Insurance Association ("Millers Mutual") appeals from a judgment dismissing its claim that respondents Arlen Low and Universal Contractors, Inc., were liable for a fire at a grain elevator insured by Millers Mutual. Millers Mutual argues that this court should set aside the jury's answer to a special-verdict question as not justified by the evidence and that the district court erred in denying Millers Mutual's motions for JNOV and for a new trial. We affirm.
In August 1995, Low was asked to move from one bin to another a grain leg, which is a tube through which dried corn is transferred from a dryer to a storage bin. The leg was to run vertically parallel to the exterior wall of the bin from bottom to top. The inside of the bin was sloped, starting at approximately three feet above ground level, to direct the stored grain to the center of the base of the elevator bin. At about five feet above ground level there was a chute with an outward-facing flanged rim placed at a 45-degree downward angle. At the top of this chute there was a slot eight inches long and one-half inch wide in which to place a protective gate to close the chute. Speltz employees had removed the protective gate and used a fluorescent lamp inside the bin to provide light while protective screens were cleaned prior to the attachment of the leg.
Low moved the leg on August 24, 1995, with the assistance of Herb Wehner of Wehner Crane Service and Excavating. Low first attached two angle irons to the bin at approximately 19 and 27 feet directly above the chute on the side of the bin. Low then welded the leg to the angle irons. All welding was done on the outside of the bin and was completed by approximately 5:00 p.m. Low and his crew left the job site at about 7:00 p.m.
Nearly three hours later, firefighters responded to a fire at the elevator. The parties stipulated that the fire caused $500,000 in damages.
Millers Mutual filed a subrogation negligence action, alleging that Low negligently caused the fire. On February 5, 1999, a jury found that, while Low was negligent, his negligence was not the direct cause of the fire. This appeal follows.
Millers Mutual first argues that we should set aside the jury's finding that Millers Mutual did not prove Low's negligence caused the fire. This court will not set aside a jury's answer to a special-verdict question unless it is "palpably contrary to the evidence or where the evidence is so clear to leave no room for differences among reasonable people." Hanks v. Hubbard Broad., Inc., 493 N.W.2d 302, 309 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993) (citation omitted). We review the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. Dang v. St. Paul Ramsey Med. Ctr., 490 N.W.2d 653, 659 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Dec. 15, 1992).
The theory of causation presented by Millers Mutual's expert was that a marble-sized ball of molten metal fell at least 19 feet from a weld outside of the bin and dropped precisely into the slot for the chute's gate on the side of the bin. He testified that the material would then have had to bounce off the base of the chute at a precise angle and with enough velocity to cross the six inches of bin wall. The material would then have had to have rolled to the lowest level of the bin to start the fire at the point of origination the expert determined. But the expert admitted that he had no physical evidence to support his molten-metal theory. And no pellets of previously molten metal were found on the ground outside the bin or in the bin itself by any of the investigators who inspected the fire scene. The expert also testified that the fire scene was "badly compromised" by the time he arrived, which was three days after the fire and after equipment had removed twelve truck-loads of debris.
Low testified that there should have been virtually no molten-metal runoff from the weld because of its location. The crane operator, Wehner, testified that he saw no molten metal falling from Low's welding and that he would have paid specific attention to Low's welding because his crane could be damaged by falling materials. Additionally, Low presented two experts who testified that a motor in the bin showed signs of internal malfunction and overheating consistent with motors that have caused fires. The jury also heard testimony that the fluorescent lamp used inside the bin while the protective screens were cleaned has not been found since the fire.
A state deputy fire marshal who first investigated the fire testified that he believed that "the most probable cause" of the fire was the "welding activity." The fire marshal's analysis was not based on evidence that indicated that the welding caused the fire but rather was based on the fact that there was a fire and his conclusion that the welding was the most likely cause, given that arson or weather were not likely causes and he was unable to identify a heat source at the facility that day other than the welding. The fire marshal also testified that he was unable to rule out an electrical cause of the fire.
If we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, the jury's finding that Millers Mutual failed to establish direct causation is not palpably contrary to the evidence. While we may have concluded differently, the evidence is not so clear as to leave no room for differences among reasonable people, and we will not set aside the jury's answer to the special-verdict question.
Millers Mutual also argues that the district court erred by denying its motion for JNOV. Where a district court denies a motion for JNOV, this court must affirm that denial if there is any competent evidence reasonably tending to sustain the verdict. See Rettman v. City of Litchfield, 354 N.W.2d 426, 429 (Minn. 1984). This court will review the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Beck v. American Sharecom, Inc., 514 N.W.2d 584, 587 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. June 29, 1994). Given the evidence discussed above, viewed in the light most favorable to respondents, there is competent evidence reasonably tending to sustain the district court's judgment that Millers Mutual had not met its burden in proving that Low's negligence was a direct cause of the fire. We affirm the district court's denial of JNOV.
Finally, Millers Mutual argues that the district court erred by denying its motion for a new trial. The decision of whether to grant a new trial lies within the sound discretion of the district court and will not be overturned absent an abuse of that discretion. Halla Nursery, Inc. v. Bauman-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). On appeal from denial of a motion for a new trial, the denial must stand unless the verdict is palpably contrary to the evidence when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict. ZumBerge v. Northern States Power Co., 481 N.W.2d 103, 110 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Apr. 29, 1992). As we have concluded above, the jury's finding that Millers Mutual failed to establish direct causation is not palpably contrary to the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict. We therefore affirm the district court's denial of a new trial.