Category Archives: Court Decision

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Eastern District of Pennsylvania Excludes Portion of Electrical Engineering Expert’s Fire Causation Opinion

On May 18, 2017, the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled that a plaintiff’s electrical engineering expert could not testify regarding the origin of a fire and further excluded a portion of his testimony regarding fire cause. In State Farm Fire & Casualty Company v. Hartman Contractors, et al., 2017 WL 2180292 (E.D. Pa. May 18, 2017), the defendant contractor installed framing and drywall to finish the basement of a newly constructed townhouse in Phoenixville, PA. Approximately eight years after this…

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

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…

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When a Product Expert Has No Experience with Product Allegedly Causing Fire: A Recent Exclusion and Considerations

An Illinois federal district judge recently excluded certain testimony offered by a plaintiff’s expert in a product liability case. The ruling offers an opportunity to stay abreast of recent expert witness rulings and the viability of an argument routinely used by the defense — that the plaintiff’s expert lacks any experience with the specific product that allegedly caused the fire. Although a common argument, it can give rise to a number of case-specific considerations. The Case The recent case of Ostrinsky v. Black & Decker

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Kentucky Judge Sets Aside Manslaughter Conviction in Deadly Trailer Fire Case After Finding it was Based on Unreliable Forensic Evidence

On December 28, 2016, Logan County Commonwealth Circuit Judge Tyler Gill granted Robert Yell a new trial and vacated his 2006 manslaughter conviction in a case involving a September 11, 2004 mobile home fire that resulted the death of Yell’s 2-year-old son. Although the conviction was upheld on two prior occasions, Yell was successful in contending that forensic evidence admitted at trial to prove that the fire had multiple points of origin was scientifically unreliable, thus denying him of due process. The evidence in question…

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Eastern District of California Throws Out Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Modesto County Officials in Wrongful Conviction Case

On January 15,1997, a rental home in Modesto, California owned by George Souliotes burned down, killing tenant Michelle Jones and her two children. Authorities arrested Souliotes, charging him with three counts of homicide and one count of arson. At trial, fire investigators from the Modesto County Fire Department testified that the fire was caused by arson. They relied on several factors to support their conclusion: the fire being unusually hot; “pour patterns” on the floor where flammable liquids obviously had been poured and ignited; “deep…

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Fifth Circuit Affirms District Court’s Exclusion of Opinions of Plaintiffs’ Expert Engineers Regarding Cause of Vehicle Fire and Defective Design of Fuel Tank

On October 5, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert engineers regarding the cause of a vehicle fire and the defective design of the vehicle’s fuel tank were properly excluded. In Sims v. Kia Motors of Am., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 18116 (5th Cir. Tex. Oct. 5, 2016), Henry Sims, Sr. was a passenger in the backseat of a 2010 Kia Soul when it collided with another car in an intersection, spun out and…

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Sixth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Civil Rights Action Based Upon Wrongful Conviction in Arson/Murder Case

In 1986, David Gavitt was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of arson and felony murder stemming from a fire that took the life of his wife and two daughters. In 2012, the state court granted Gavitt’s unopposed motion for relief from judgment due to newly discovered evidence based on advancements in fire science. The judgment was vacated, charges dismissed, and Gavitt was released from jail. Gavitt later brought a civil rights action against numerous city and county entities, prosecutors, police…

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In a Split Decision, Seventh Circuit Affirms District Court’s Denial of Habeas Corpus in Arson/Murder Case

In 1993, Glenn Patrick Bradford, a then Evansville, Indiana police officer, was convicted of murder and arson and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Bradford filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court, but the Southern District of Indiana denied review last November. In Bradford v. Brown, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 14260, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Bradford’s request. In a factually rich opinion, Judge Posner, joined by Judge Kanne, found that Bradford failed to present sufficient evidence to…

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District Court in South Carolina Allows Parties’ Experts to Testify in Design Defect Case Involving Heater’s Ignition of Woman’s Clothing

On August 10, 2016, the District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled that experts retained by a woman who suffered severe burns after a propane heater ignited her clothing could testify under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, Federal Rule of Evidence 403 and the Daubert standard regarding the origin and cause of the fire, the defectiveness of the heater’s design, and how an alternative design would have prevented the incident. Likewise, the district court ruled that an expert retained by the defendant manufacturer…

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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…

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