The Importance of the Product Defense Attorney at the Fire Scene: Part Two

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Part 2: Attendance at the Fire Scene – Information Gathering and Initial Investigation

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.

The time has come for the scene exam. In accordance to the last blog post in this series, you and your expert(s) are sufficiently prepared. While your retained expert(s) will be conducting his/her own investigation, this does not mean you should rest on your laurels. A mentor once told me that I should leave a scene exam knowing as much as my expert. That is great advice, but I would go even a step further — leave the scene exam knowing MORE than your expert knows. Most of us are not origin and cause investigators or engineers, however, there is so much “non-technical” information to be gathered from the attendance at a fire scene. Do not be that attorney — we have all seen him/her — that goes to a scene exam only to sit in his/her car or off to the side doing other work. Your client cared enough to send you to this exam; make it worth their while.

It is worth noting that there are some dangers at a fire scene. Do not dress like a lawyer. Where appropriate shoes and clothes that you do not mind smelling like a campfire. Steel shoes, safety glasses, a helmet and breathing apparatus are sometimes necessary. Property attacked by fire can have structural damage and there will likely be a lot of debris present. If areas of the scene look unsafe, you should limit your activity in the residence as not to endanger yourself.

A fire scene exam usually begins with a meeting with all the parties. The handling investigator will usually provide a brief recap of the facts of the fire. Many times, a fire report or other investigative materials will be distributed (if not already received). This is the time for you to take as many notes as possible. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you do not believe enough information has been provided. Many times, the home/business owners will be present. Take the opportunity to ask them questions if allowed. Of course, if the owners are represented by attorneys, make sure to not have any ex parte communication outside the parameters allowed by their attorneys.

Now it is time to start your initial investigation. You are an extra set of eyes. Take your own photographs. Conduct a walk-through of the surrounding areas. Remember, all your notes are protected in most states via the applicable work-product doctrine.

A lot can be discovered during this initial investigation. Take a look at the outside of the house and see if you can determine exactly where the fire started. Sometime this is readily apparent and sometimes it is harder to tell. Do you see anything suspicious in the area? Take note of anything odd, i.e. there is a gas can in the bushes or remains of fireworks all over the yard.

Before going into the structure, walk around the neighborhood and knock on doors. Neighbors get interested when a fire occurs; perhaps they noticed something that has not been mentioned before. Interviews with neighbors have been known to uncover a lot of information and put a new spin on a fire investigation. For example, the claimant’s state that they do not smoke in the house, but the neighbor has attended parties at the residence where people were smoking in the house. While canvassing the neighborhood may not always yield usable information, it is worth a shot.

Look for the next installment of this series: Part 3 – Attendance at the Fire Scene – Investigation of the Area of Origin and Scene Wrap-Up.


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