This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Gormcaswar F. Buddhu,
Filed April 12, 2005
Hennepin County District Court
File No. PD 02-6320
Steven L. Theesfeld, David J. Taylor, Yost & Baill, LLP, 2050 U.S. Bank Plaza South, 220 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
Joseph Kaminsky, Esq., 260 Brookdale Corporate Center, 6300 Shingle Creek Parkway, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge; Lansing, Judge; and Stoneburner, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In this appeal from judgment in a negligence action, Gormcaswar Buddhu challenges the district court’s findings that he breached a legal duty of care in starting, maintaining, and failing properly to extinguish a fire that damaged property of his adjoining neighbor. Because the evidence in the record as a whole reasonably supports the district court’s findings, we affirm.
F A C T S
Gormcaswar Buddhu started a fire to burn construction debris in a fire pit outside his cabin on Lake Amelia about 10:00 a.m. on a hot, dry, and exceptionally windy July day. Buddhu testified that he allowed the fire to burn for about an hour and then followed his standard procedure of dousing the fire with water and raking the ashes with a fork. He and his family left the cabin about 12:30 p.m. Buddhu’s next-door neighbor, Sandra Evans, saw Buddhu start the fire but did not see him extinguish it. When she left her cabin about 2:00 p.m. she departed from the side opposite Buddhu’s property and did not see whether the fire was extinguished.
About 5:15 p.m., a neighbor across the road reported a fire on Evans’s property. When firefighters responded, they saw that Evans’s fish house had burned and also saw a smoldering fire in Buddhu’s fire pit. They observed a pattern of burn marks on the ground near the destroyed fish house extending eight to ten feet toward the burning fire pit.
Evans brought this negligence action in district court. The complaint alleges that Buddhu was negligent and seeks damages for the fish house, a camper stored on the property, stacked wood, trees, and a fence. Following a bench trial, the district court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that Buddhu was negligent in starting, maintaining, and improperly extinguishing the fire. The district court further found that the fire in the fire pit spread to Evans’s property and caused the damage alleged in the complaint. In this appeal from judgment, Buddhu challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the district court’s findings.
In reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of evidence to support a district court’s findings, we start from the fundamental principle that findings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, will not be reversed unless they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. Findings of fact are clearly erroneous when they are not reasonably supported by evidence in the record considered as a whole. Peterson v. Johnston, 254 N.W.2d 360, 362 (Minn. 1977). On appeal, we are obligated to view the record in the light most favorable to the district court’s judgment. Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650, 656 (Minn. 1999).
Buddhu does not dispute that he owed a duty of reasonable care in starting, maintaining, and extinguishing the fire, but he claims that Evans failed to show that he breached this duty. See Luke v. City of Anoka, 277 Minn. 1, 8, 151 N.W.2d 429, 434 (1967) (defining reasonable care to require taking precautions against ordinary risks that can reasonably be anticipated). Generally, negligence, breach, and proximate cause are questions of fact. Stelling v. Hanson Silo Co., 563 N.W.2d 286, 290 (Minn. App. 1997) (breach); Block v. Target Stores, 458 N.W.2d 705, 712 (Minn. App. 1990) (negligence and proximate cause), review denied (Minn. Sept. 28, 1990).
The district court found that Buddhu started a large fire in his fire pit on a hot, dry, and extremely windy day; that he had attempted to extinguish that fire before leaving his cabin; and that a few hours later, when firefighters extinguished a fire that damaged adjacent property belonging to Evans, they determined that the fire had originated in Buddhu’s fire pit and spread to Evans’s property. Relying on these findings, the district court determined that Evans sustained property damage as a direct and proximate result of Buddhu’s negligent starting, maintaining, and failing to extinguish the fire in his fire pit.
These findings are not clearly erroneous. Because a district court’s findings are a product of direct observation of testimony, we defer to its assessment of witness credibility and the weight to be given to a witness’s testimony. Nelson v. Lutheran Mut. Life Ins. Co., 311 Minn. 527, 529, 249 N.W.2d 445, 447 (1976). Buddhu testified that his fire of pine boards from a remodeling project was not large and that he took his usual precautions of throwing water on the fire and stirring it with a fork before he left his cabin. But Evans and her daughter testified that the pile of debris to be burned was about three to four feet high by three feet wide, and that it extended beyond the rim of the fire pit. Buddhu and other witnesses agreed that it was a hot, dry, and windy day, and Evans’s daughter testified that the flames from Buddhu’s fire were “gusting” in the wind. Although Buddhu testified that he built frequent campfires in the fire pit, he acknowledged that he did not usually use it to burn construction material. He was only using it on that day because the dump where he usually took the debris was closed for the Fourth of July weekend.
The testimony presented on the origin of the fire, the composition of the fire, and the weather conditions on the day of the fire permits the district court to draw the inference that Buddhu breached his duty of care by starting this particular fire under the prevailing conditions and failing properly to guard it. See Jesperson v. Phillips, 46 Minn. 147, 147, 48 N.W. 770, 770 (1891) (stating appropriate standard of care for backfire set on windy day to require “exercise [of] such care and diligence in guarding [the fire] as an honest and prudent man would use to prevent . . . damage”).
The district court could also rely on the testimony of the volunteer fire chief who responded to the report of fire on Evans’s property. Basing his testimony on twenty-nine years of firefighting experience, the fire chief testified that it was possible for ashes in fire pits to ignite twenty-four to thirty-six hours after a fire had been doused. Therefore, Buddhu’s subjective belief that he had completely put out the fire does not prevent an inference that it was negligently started, maintained, or extinguished in light of the conditions existing on the day of the fire. See, e.g., Krippner v. Biebl, 28 Minn. 139, 144, 9 N.W. 671, 672 (1881) (holding that fire smoldering in slough for two days before it revived, with no intervening independent cause except ordinary wind change, permitted recovery in negligence action); Erickson v. Strickler, 252 Minn. 351, 361, 90 N.W.2d 232, 239 (1958) (holding that district court erred in granting motion for directed verdict on claim to recover damages for home that burned two days after alleged negligence in extinguishing fire built to burn brush).
The district court did not clearly err in finding that Buddhu negligently started, maintained, and failed to extinguish the fire, which resulted in damage to Evans’s property.