Author Archives: Trial by Fire

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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

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…

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Michigan Court Denies Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony on “Clinkers”

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently denied a defendant’s motion in limine to exclude expert testimony regarding “clinkers,” which is a mass of organic material produced in a hay or straw fire. In case No. 324075, it was undisputed that a fire began in a storage barn containing approximately 46 large bales of straw supplied by the defendant. The plaintiff alleged that the straw bales were defective in that they spontaneously combusted and ignited the fire causing property damage. The plaintiff’s experts opined that…

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District Court Allows Testimony Despite Experts’ Failure to Adhere to NFPA921

The Eastern District of Washington recently denied a defendant manufacturer’s attempt to exclude the testimony of two experts regarding fire origin and cause. In case No. 13-CV-0328-TOR, an insurer sued the defendant manufacturer alleging that inspections of the fire scene and evidence confirmed that a printer caused a residential fire. The defendants’ experts disagreed and attributed the cause of the fire to a failure in the home’s lighting system. In support of their opinions, the plaintiff’s experts cited a 2011 article suggesting that printers are…

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District Court Allows Expert’s Testimony in Fire Case Despite His Lack of Testing and a Definitive Theory

The Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently addressed the reliability of an expert’s opinion regarding whether an exterior lighting device caused a fire and subsequent damage to the plaintiff’s home. In the subject case (Case No. 12-3568), the plaintiff filed suit against the manufacturer of the lighting device and one of its component parts alleging that a manufacturing defect in the device caused the fire. In support, the plaintiff proffered the testimony of an engineering expert who opined the fire was caused by one of three…

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Ohio Appellate Court Refuses to Extinguish Proximate Causation Opinion

An Ohio Appellate Court recently evaluated the ability of experts to determine the proximate cause of damages resulting from the failure of a fire detection system to timely detect a fire. In the subject case (Case No. L-12-1358), the plaintiff’s car dealership was destroyed by a fire. Although the defendant’s detection system alerted authorities of the fire, the plaintiff filed suit alleging that the system was negligently installed resulting in delayed detection and increased damages to the structure. In support of its position, the plaintiff…

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Area of Origin Alone is Insufficient to Prove a Defect

Breaker panel fire On the night of January 16, 2011, a security guard employed to monitor power service to a subdivision of vacant homes noticed that several homes in the Southbury, Connecticut subdivision had lost power. The subdivision, consisting of five homes that sat vacant since being built in 2005 had been experiencing false fire alarms and power outages. Two hours after the employee alerted his superior of the power outage, it was discovered that one of the homes was on fire. The fire was investigated by representatives…

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Plaintiff’s Defect Theory Up in Smoke? Enter Malfunction Theory

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently made its ruling in White v. Mazda Motor of Am., 313 Conn. 610. In White, the plaintiff asserted design defect claims against Mazda after a car purchased by the plaintiff burst into flames one month later. The plaintiff’s complaint cited a laundry list of various defects which may have caused or contributed to the incident. To support its allegation, the plaintiff retained a certified fire investigator as an expert. The plaintiff’s expert testified that “the fire appears to…

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The National Fire Protection Agency Turns up the Heat on Hypothesis Testing in its 2014 Version of NFPA 921

The fire community is continuously evolving to recognize changes in science, technology and the legal implications of fire investigations.   NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 921 Guide for Fire and Explosions Investigations, is a guide that seeks to educate the fire community about the current acceptable method of fire investigations. In order to do so, the committee of professionals that authors the guide publishes new versions every three years.  NFPA 921 was first published in 1992 and since has evolved into a document regarded by…

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