Expert Article Library

Not Enough Evidence to Support Malfunctioning Blanket Sparked Fire

Case Name: David Bryte v. American Household, Inc.
(http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/041051.P.pdf)

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District

Date: November 21, 2005

Type of Expert: Fire Experts—Fire Investigation—Electrical Engineer. Mack Dennis, Assistant State Fire Marshall; Dr. W.T. Cronenwett, electrical engineer

Issue: Should testimony of fire expert be admitted if he didn’t preserve the scene or investigate all possible causes of the fire? Must testimony of a fire expert be admitted where he could not independently identify the specific source of ignition of the fire due to the fact that there was “no remaining physical evidence” after the fire?

Summary of case: Plaintiffs claim Defendant’s defectively manufactured electric throw had a faulty circuit and caused an apartment fire, killing Plaintiffs’ relative. The relative was partially disabled, sitting in a recliner covered with the blanket, next to a small table that had a lamp and burning candle container.

Role of the expert: Plaintiff’s expert considered a number (though not all) of causes of the fire and concluded that the electric throw malfunctioned and sparked the fire.

Expert analysis: The blanket manufacturer argued that the expert only took photographs of the scene, did not recover any artifacts or samples from the scene, did not consider the significance of other cords attached to the same electrical outlet or the candle as potential origins of the fire and thus his testimony would not have been sufficiently reliable. “Daubert aims to prevent expert speculation, and our review of the record convinces us that Dennis’ failure to independently evaluate the open flame in the room cannot be reconciled with the reliability mandate.” The Court also found that the electrical engineer’s conclusions that the defective circuitry in the throw had caused the fire rested wholly on the findings of Fire Marshall Dennis and didn’t rule out other major possible causes of the fire with any degree of certainty. The Court also emphasized the rule that the admissibility of expert testimony in a federal court is controlled by federal, not state, law, including the issue of causation.

Summary prepared by J. Baik, Student, University of San Francisco School of Law