Cook County Prosecutors Agree Chicago Man Convicted of Arson in 1996 Should Get New Trial Due to Evolution in Fire Science

Two decades after Adam Gray was convicted of setting a fire that killed two people in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, Cook County prosecutors agree that he deserves a new trial because advancements in fire science have “partially invalidated” expert testimony crucial to his conviction. In Gray’s case, police and prosecutors alleged that in March of 1993 the then 14 year-old became angry with a girl who rejected him and retaliated by igniting an accelerant he poured on the back porch of the home where she resided. While the girl and her parents escaped the fire, two second-floor tenants died. At trial, prosecutors presented testimony from two fire investigators who stated that they discovered charring and deep burn patterns in the area of origin consistent with the use of an accelerant. ...
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Fire Chief’s Testimony Ruled Admissible in Arson Case Despite Concession He’s Unqualified to Determine Cause of All Fires

iStock_000001627771_Large A defendant sought to have his arson conviction overturned, arguing that the justice presiding at his trial committed a reversible error in permitting one of the state’s witnesses to give opinion testimony. In State v. Barnett (Case No. 1984 Me. LEXIS 784), the defendant claimed that a fire chief from the responding fire department should not have been permitted to testify that, while investigating the origin of a fire at the defendant’s home, he called in the state fire marshal’s office to assist because he thought the fire was “suspicious.” The defendant contended that the chief’s testimony contained an expert opinion and therefore violated the court’s earlier ruling that the chief was not competent to testify as an expert. Regarding his credentials, the fire chief testified that he served as ...
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New Jersey Superior Court Rules the Nose is Not Enough for Arson Conviction

iStock_000054736346 On July 11, 2016, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed the conviction of an alleged arsonist, vacated her sentence, and remanded the case for a new trial. State v. Satoris, No. A-1079-13T1, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1605 (Super. Ct. App. Div. July 11, 2016). In 2013, defendant Cheryl Satoris was convicted of third-degree arson. She appealed the conviction, arguing that she was entitled to a new trial because the trial court erroneously permitted the state to introduce evidence concerning a canine’s detection of an accelerant on evidence removed from her home. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey agreed with the defendant, finding that the trial court disregarded the guidelines of NFPA 921, which state “in order for the presence of absence of an ignitable ...
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District Court Allows Expert Testimony Attributing Cause of a House Fire to Careless Smoking

78397252 On May 20, 2016, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that an insurer’s fire expert could testify regarding a tenant’s smoking being the cause of a residential fire under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert standard. In Allstate Ins. Co. v. Anderson, No. 15-2651, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66481 (E.D. Pa. May 20, 2016), the defendant tenant stated that he smoked a cigarette in the basement bedroom of a residence insured by Allstate and placed it in a can on a table near the foot of the bed the morning of the fire. A baseboard heater was operating in the area of the bed during this time. The tenant then left the residence to go to a corner store, returned his bedroom, and then went upstairs to eat ...
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The Importance of the Product Defense Attorney at the Fire Scene: Part Four

80831090 Part 4 – Attendance at the Fire Scene –Post Scene Exam Defense Planning The attendance of a product defense attorney at the fire scene can greatly assist in the defense of a fire loss. Of course, that benefit is only fully realized when an attorney is sufficiently prepared and takes a proactive role when at the scene. If a client chooses to send an attorney to a fire scene, the attorney should make the most of that opportunity and gather as much information as possible to assist in the case. This series of blog posts will expound on the importance of preparation prior to a scene exam, attendance at the scene exam, and post scene exam activities. You have now completed your investigation of the fire scene. Before you actually ...
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$150M Verdict against Jeep Manufacturer — Cut to $40M — Heads to the Georgia Court of Appeals

Gavel and money isolated on white In Fiat Chrysler Automobiles v. Walden, No. A16A1285, Fiat Chrysler is appealing the trial court’s final judgment on liability and damages in a case involving a high-speed rear-end collision that punctured the gas tank of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, causing it to explode. At trial, the family of a 4-year-old boy killed in the crash argued that the design of the jeep was defective and dangerous in that its gas tank was located in the crush-zone between the rear bumper and axle. The family also presented evidence that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had previously requested of Chrysler a recall of more than two million vehicles based upon the higher likelihood of fire because of the position of the gas tank, but Chrysler refused. At the conclusion of ...
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Verdict in Favor of Defendant Fire-Suppression System Manufacturer in Yacht Fire Case Affirmed

480688004 On May 26, 2016, the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the defendant in a products liability suit involving a 2011 fire that started in the engine room of a 67-foot wooden yacht. In Sudderth v. Mariner Elec. Co., 16-5 ( La. App. 5 Cir 05/26/16) the plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer of an automatic fire-suppression system alleging that the system was defective, unreasonably dangerous in design, construction, and did not perform as advertised. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the suppression system, which was designed to protect unoccupied engine compartments by discharging when the surrounding temperature reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit, did not discharge during the fire resulting in significant fire damage to the yacht. At trial, the plaintiff’s fire expert George ...
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The Importance of the Product Defense Attorney at the Fire Scene: Part Three

model release:
property release: Part 3 – Attendance at the Fire Scene: Investigation of the Area of Origin and Scene Wrap-Up The attendance of a product defense attorney at the fire scene can greatly assist in the defense of a fire loss. Of course, that benefit is only fully realized when an attorney is sufficiently prepared and takes a proactive role when at the scene. If a client chooses to send an attorney to a fire scene, the attorney should make the most of that opportunity and gather as much information as possible to assist in the case. This series of blog posts will expound on the importance of preparation prior to a scene exam, attendance at the scene exam, and post scene exam activities. You have now completed your initial investigation of the ...
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West Virginia Court Denies Petitioner’s Attempt to Use Advances in Fire Science and NFPA 921 to Obtain a New Trial After Murder Conviction

494439420 On June 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia denied a petitioner’s habeas corpus petition challenging his 1995 first degree murder conviction. In Anstey v. Ballard, No. 15-0067, 2016 W. Va. LEXIS 428 (June 2, 2016), the petitioner asserted that he was entitled to a new trial because the advancement in fire science, specifically the application of NFPA 921, during the last 20 years constituted newly-discovered evidence resulting in a fundamental unfairness in his original trial. Evidence from the underlying trial established that the petitioner moved into a house trailer occupied by his grandmother. Multiple witnesses testified they heard arguments between the grandmother and petitioner and observed bruises on her. Witnesses also testified that the grandmother requested that the petitioner be removed from her Will, however, that she ...
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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on Bad-Faith Claim Finding Sufficient Evidence to Demonstrate Insurance Company Should Have Known Experts’ Fire Cause Opinions Were Unreliable

Judge Holding Documents On February 29, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an insurance company on a yacht owner’s bad-faith claim. In Atl. Specialty Ins. Co. v. Mr. Charlie Adventures, LLC, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 3619 (11th Cir. Ala. Feb. 29, 2016), a 40-foot yacht named “Mr. Charlie” was completely destroyed by a fire that started in its engine room. The owner filed a claim with Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company as it had issued an insurance policy to provide coverage for the yacht. Atlantic denied the claim based on reports authored by a marine surveyor and fire origin and cause investigator it retained to investigate the cause of the fire. In that regard, Atlantic’s experts concluded the fire ...
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