Federal Judge Denies Motion to Bar Fire Investigators’ Opinions in Strict Liability Lawsuit For Adherence to NFPA 921 and Industry Standards

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In Harris Caprock Communications, Inc. v. Trippe Manufacturing Co. d/b/a Tripp Lite d/b/a Tripp Lite Holdings, Inc. (No. 15-0130), a Texas federal judge denied a motion to exclude the opinions of two fire investigators’ regarding the origin and cause of a fire in a strict products liability case, as the methodology employed was approved both within the industry as well as under the National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations (NFPA 921).

In March 2013, Harris CapRock Communications sustained a fire that the Houston Arson Bureau classified as being caused by arson. When arson investigators arrived at the scene, they opined that two carts manufactured by Trippe Manufacturing were the source of the fire. Harris CapRock filed suit against Trippe, asserting claims of strict products liability and breach of implied warranties. The case was originally filed in state court but was removed to the Southern District of Texas.

As the case progressed, Harris CapRock retained Joseph Ellington and Kevin Davis as origin and cause experts. Ellington concluded that the fire originated at the northern-most of the two carts and Davis maintained that the cause of the fire was a Trippe Uninterruptible Power Supply, located on the bottom shelf of this cart. Trippe moved to exclude the testimony and opinions of both Ellington and Davis.

Trippe first argued that Ellington’s opinion was “purely speculative” and unreliable because Ellington failed to comply with standard fire investigation protocol when he “bagged and tagged” evidence “selectively and without cause.” The court, however, found that Ellington’s conclusions were reliable under both Daubert and Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Specifically, the court ruled that Ellington’s methodology employed an “approved practice in fire investigations for a fire investigator to consult persons with specialized knowledge of experience that the investigator lacks.” Moreover, the court found that Ellington complied with NFPA 921 because a fire investigator has discretion to determine what physical evidence should be collected. As such, any challenges regarding Ellington’s collection process and determination go to the weight, rather than to the admissibility, of his expert opinions.

Trippe next argued that Davis’ opinions should be excluded because they were not supported by any of Daubert’s reliability factors, particularly that his opinions were based upon evidence that was “cherry-picked” by Ellington. The judge again, however, ruled that Davis’ methodology was supported by NFPA 921, as well as the fire investigation industry, because he eliminated all other potential causes of ignition before concluding that the Trippe Uninterruptible Power Supply ignited the fire. Davis’ methodology therefore was properly supported as he examined, considered, and eliminated alternative causes of the fire.

As this case demonstrates, it is imperative that all experts follow the methodology employed within the fire investigation industry as well as NFPA 921 when investigating fires and drawing conclusions. If these standards are adhered to, the testimony will stand and any challenges will relate to the weight of the testimony, rather than the admissibility of the testimony.

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