Negligence and amendment of pleadings as material factors within a tortious claim lay central to a case between a private landowner and a corporate body, whose reliance upon subsequent natural acts failed to excuse their own actions when the plaintiff suffered serious property damage.
Having experienced one of the worst droughts in recent history, Minnesota was subject to a number of field fires, many of which originated in various locations and went on to cause significant harm to those living nearby, while on this occasion the appellants were sued for damages in the District Court for St. Louis County on grounds that one of their locomotives wheels had emitted sparks that continued to smoulder unextinguished for almost two months, before high winds caused them to flare up and later burn the appellee’s home.
During the trial, the appellants argued that there had been other fires in close proximity to the appellee’s home, and so there was insufficient evidence upon which to bring a claim, while the judge instructed the jury (i) that if the appellants’ fire had become mingled with another fire prior to reaching the appellee’s home, then they were liable for neglect, and (ii) that if it was shown that the appellants’ engine had started a second fire in the same region as those used in defence they were liable for neglect, however the jury were left hesitant and so asked:
“[W]hether the defendant would be liable if they should find that one of defendant’s engines set a fire west of Kettle River, and that on October 12th this fire was of sufficient magnitude to play an important part in any consolidation of fires that may have occurred between it and other fires coming from the west and northwest, and the consolidated fires passed over plaintiff’s land and did the damage.”
To which, the court concurred before the jury awarded for the appellee, despite the appellants having ample opportunity to prove otherwise, whereupon the appellants challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court on grounds that the appellee had altered his claim to suit the revised jury statement.
Here, the court referred to Gracz v. Anderson, in which it had held that:
“Whether an application to amend a pleading to make it conform to facts proven on the trial should, or should not, be granted, rests ordinarily in the sound discretion of the trial court.”
While § 7784 of the Minnesota General Statutes of 1913 stated in relevant part that:
“Plaintiff must proceed on a definite theory and change of attitude, prejudicial to defendant, can be allowed [except where] a variance between the pleadings and proof held not of a nature to mislead the defendant.”
And so, when examining the contributory nature of the fire, the court also relied upon Bibb Broom Corp. Co. v. Atchison T. & S. F. Ry. Co., in which it had also held that:
“[I]f damage is caused by the concurrent force of defendant’s neglect and some other cause for which he is not responsible, including an act of God, he is nevertheless liable if his negligence is one of the proximate causes of the injury complained of, even though, under the particular circumstances,he was not bound to anticipate the interference of the intervening force which concurred with his own.”
While further noting how in Krippner v. Biebl the court had also held that:
“If the defendant exercised proper care in extinguishing the fire on the evening of the day it had been started, and did actually extinguish it, he is not liable; but if he was negligent in the first instance, in the setting and care of the fire, no amount of care or diligence afterwards exercised will exonerate him from liability.”
Hence, the court upheld the trial court judgment, while reasoning that regardless of the change in jury instruction and the contention that natural occurrences rendered the appellants exempt from negligence, there was simply no standing for such an argument under Minnesota law, before reminding the parties that:
“If the amendment to a complaint does not introduce an entirely new cause of action, but merely changes the statement of the manner in which the injury was inflicted, it is ordinarily permissible.”