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 work was completed, a fire broke out in the basement of the townhouse and caused significant smoke and fire damage.

As part of the fire insurance claim process, State Farm retained an origin and cause investigator who examined the fire scene and concluded that the fire originated under the basement stairway and that the ignition source for the fire was a breakdown of the electrical wiring in the area from mechanical damage resulting from a nail, screw or staple. State Farm also retained electrical engineer Michael Wald to assist in determining the cause of the fire and to determine why the wiring failed and ignited the fire. After examining the fire scene and the evidence retained, Wald concluded that the wiring was damaged by a 2-inch drywall screw mistakenly used by the defendant contractor when installing the drywall in 2005, which allowed the wiring to overheat and cause the fire.

The defendant contractor challenged Wald’s causation testimony as unreliable under Rule 702 and Daubert. Specifically, the defendant argued that Wald did not apply the scientific method in completing his investigation, that his opinion lacked evidentiary support, was speculative and not supported by testing. The defendant further argued that Wald was not qualified to offer an opinion on the origin of the fire as he was not a certified fire investigator.

Regarding Wald’s causation opinion, the district court held that Wald’s opinion was supported by accepted methodology and reliable as he conducted his own investigation by visiting the fire scene and observing and collecting evidence, reviewed relevant deposition testimony and properly considered and eliminated other potential causes for the fire. The district court did agree, however, that Wald’s conclusion that the defendant mistakenly used a 2-inch drywall screw was speculative and not supported by the evidence. Accordingly, the district court excluded that portion of Wald’s causation opinion. Furthermore, with respect to fire origin, the district court agreed with the defendant that Wald was not qualified to offer an independent opinion regarding the origin of the fire.

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