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Second District: Allstate Can Seek $187,000 from Handyman Accused of Cracking Nut, Flooding Physician’s House

A state appeals court ruled Allstate Insurance Co. can attempt to recover from a handyman the money it paid to a homeowner who was splashed in the face with water and who also broke her wrist trying to clean up her flooded floors.

The Second District Court of Appeals ruled last week that a Montgomery County trial judge improperly granted summary judgment to Pittman Home Improvement, and it directed the court to hear arguments on Allstate’s claim that the handyman cracked a toilet hose washer nut in the home of Dayton Dr. Laila Gomaa.

Gomaa returned to her home in June 2012 from an extended out-of-town trip and heard swishing noises. When she opened the door to the main floor half-bath, she was splashed in the face with water spraying  like a fountain from under the toilet, according to the decision. Noticing wet carpet in her house, she went to the basement to get her wet-dry vacuum. There, she found the basement had filled with ankle-deep water, and Gomaa slipped and broke her wrist.

Gomaa called for a rescue squad, as well as Dewayne Pittman, a patient of hers who had done repair and maintenance work at her home. Gomaa testified that Pittman had done home repairs for her since 2005, and that sometime in the months before the accident he entered her home to repair the toilet, carrying a plastic coupling nut, pliers, and a wrench. Pittman testified he never worked on the toilet supply line, but adjusted the toilet tank. He said he had no formal training as a plumber and that he did not touch the supply lines or anything connected to the lines.

Allstate sent a professional cleaning company out to the home and it discovered damage to the toilet tank supply line. Gomaa called Al Black, another patient of hers who did repair work, to replace the coupling nuts on all her toilets to prevent another damaging leak. Black said he took off the supply line and valve on the damaged toilet and gave them to Gomaa who turned them over to an Allstate adjuster.

Allstate claims adjusters inspected the nut and sent it to Interscience, Inc., a Virginia-based firm that conducted a non-destructive exam of the supply-line assembly. Allstate and Interscience determined hairline fractures of the coupling nut caused the leak, and the damage to the nut was consistent with someone improperly using a pair of pliers or wrench to tighten it.

Allstate then sued Pittman in April 2013, to recover the $187,000 it paid Gomaa, alleging Pittman breached his contract with Gomaa and negligently damaged her home. Pittman countered that Allstate could not prove Pittman caused the damage, and that Black could have fractured the nut by accidentally tightening it while trying to loosen it. Pittman also argued that Allstate should be prevented from offering the nut as evidence as a penalty for spoiling it by allowing Black to remove it to do their investigation.

Writing for the Appeals Court, Judge Jeffrey M. Wellbaum rejected Pittman’s arguments that were accepted by the trial court. To the point that Black might have damaged the nut, the court deemed that was not plausible because the toilet supply line was leaking before Black came into contact with it.

“More importantly, Allstate argues that the trial court’s conclusion ignores the testimony of Allstate’s expert, who indicated the supply line was leaking when it was initially discovered – before Black’s removal,” Judge Wellbaum wrote.

The appeals court decision also determined the condition of the nut was not that important to the outcome of the dispute if Pittman asserted he never worked on the supply line.

“Pittman’s defense was that he never repaired any supply lines at Gomaa’s house. Therefore, the cause of the leak on a product that he never repaired or had contact with would not have been critical to his defense,” Judge Wellbaum wrote.

Judge Wellbaum noted Allstate’s arguments were weakened when the trial judge would not let it introduce the nut as a sanction for spoiling the evidence. Without the nut, Allstate’s ability to prove what caused the damage was severely hampered. The appellate court concluded it was wrong to sanction Allstate because Pittman was arguing it was possible that Black damaged the nut when taking it off to give to Gomaa.

Because the court found it was not plausible that Black’s actions had anything to do with the leak, it found it was unfair for the trial judge to exclude the nut. The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Judges Jeffrey E. Froelich and Michael T. Hall concurred in the decision.

Allstate Ins. Co. v. Pittman, 2015-Ohio-699
http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/2/2015/2015-Ohio-699.pdf
Civil Appeal From: Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Feb. 27, 2015

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