Daniel Scully operated a travel agency from a storefront that he leased in a one-story commercial building owned by William Fitzgerald. Attached to the back portion of that structure was a two-story building, which Fitzgerald also owned. The two-story building contained two apartments, one on each floor.
The rear portion of the first-floor apartment was a storage area, over which a deck extended from the second-floor apartment. During a summer heat wave, a fire that started in the storage area spread and destroyed most of the apartment building. The attached commercial building was significantly damaged by smoke and by water that firefighters used to extinguish the blaze. Scully suffered a total loss of his office property and had to relocate his business. In the area where the fire started, Fitzgerald had stored mulch, construction debris, gasoline, a gas engine lawn mower, a gas engine snow blower, old papers and other refuse that had accumulated over time, and garbage that was both in and out of trash cans. Because the storage area was unenclosed, it was freely accessible. The tenants who lived in the second-floor apartment regularly smoked cigarettes on the deck above the storage areas and dropped cigarette butts in and near the storage area. Fire officials who investigated the blaze found cigarette butts in that general area. Scully sued Fitzgerald for negligence, alleging that Fitzgerald had failed to use reasonable care to maintain the storage area and that this failure caused the fire. The local fire chief, who determined that the fire originated in the storage area, testified in his deposition that he could not pinpoint the fire’s exact cause but that he was able to eliminate potential causes such as the building’s air conditioning units, the lawn mower and snow blower, the electrical outlets and lights, and the mulch. The fire chief offered his “best guess” that the fire started accidentally when a lit cigarette or match ignited loose debris. An expert witness for the plaintiff provided a report concluding that the storage of construction materials, equipment containing gasoline, and various other combustibles in the open storage area created an “unreasonable risk of fire” that “could have been avoided or greatly reduced by properly securing the area and/or prohibiting smoking in the area.” In the expert’s opinion, the failure to take those remedial steps led to the fire. Fitzgerald moved for summary judgment. A New Jersey court granted his motion after ruling that Scully had failed to produce evidence of a breach of duty on the defendant’s part. The court rejected the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert because he did not identify a standard of care by reference to a building or fire code. Did the trial court rule correctly in granting Fitzgerald’s motion for summary judgment?