Expert Article Library

Circumstantial Evidence Enough for Jury to Decide if Product caused Fire

Case Name: Allstate Insurance Co. v. Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex, Inc. (Click here for the full text of the case)

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Date: January 05, 2007

Expert: 1) Fire Expert. David Eliassen, cause and origin investigator for Allstate 2) Electrical Expert. Eric Chaine, electrical engineer for Allstate.

Issues: Can circumstantial evidence alone be used to demonstrate a fire origin caused by a defective product?

Summary of case: Plaintiff brought suit to recover approximately $97,000 paid to 2 parties that it had insured. The loss was based on a fire in a home, allegedly caused by the defendant’s defective coffee maker. The fire originated in the kitchen. The case applied Vermont state law for Breach of Warranty and Strict Products Liability. Both the defendant and the plaintiff had fire experts at the scene. The defendant’s initial expert conceded that the coffee pot was the cause and did not examine the stove or hood in the kitchen, the other possible fire sources. The hood and stove, which were damaged by fire, were discarded. Defendant moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The district court did not allow the plaintiff’s expert testimony because the hood and stove were discarded, and the plaintiff was unable to show that coffee maker was not damaged after it left the factory.

Role of the expert: Both experts used circumstantial evidence to determine that the coffee pot was the source of the fire: 1) David Eliassen stated that the kitchen stove and range did not appear to be the fire source, and arson and negligence were not the apparent cause either. 2) Eric Chaine testified that though the coffee maker was burnt considerably, and that upon examining the electrical cord, it appeared that arcing (a high-temperature spark) was the most probable failure.

Challenges to the Expert's testimony: Defendant conceded that the kitchen range or hood were not probable sources of the fire but had their own expert, fire inspector Scott Barnhill testify. Barnhill testified that the arcing that Chaine estimated could not have been strong enough to start the fire. The Appellate Court found that the circumstantial evidence presented was sufficient to overcome a summary judgment motion. The court ruled there was enough evidence to allow a jury to determine if the coffee maker was the cause of fire and if the coffee maker was damaged after it left the factory.

Summary prepared by Christopher P. Stafford, Student, Golden Gate University, School of Law