Fire Expert Witness Allowed

Plaintiff sued defendant after a fire took place in plaintiff’s garage.  In order to prove their case, the plaintiff hired a fire expert witness.  The defendant filed a motion to exclude the expert testimony, which was denied by the court.

Facts:  This case (Ford v. Ford Motor Company – United States District Court – District of New Jersey – October 27th, 2017) involves a fire that took place in the garage of the plaintiffs (Fords) home.  They filed suit seeking recovery for insured losses.  In addition, Plymouth Rock Assurance filed suit against the defendants (Ford Motor Company) seeking recovery for the amounts paid to the plaintiffs.  In order to prove their case, the Fords hired Michael Zazula (fire expert witness) to provide an expert witness report.  The defendants subsequently filed a motion to exclude this testimony.

Discussion:  The defendants argue that Zazula is not qualified to provide an expert opinion in this case and that his opinions are speculative and unreliable.

First, they state that Zazula’s highest level of education is high school.  The court opined that even though Zazula doesn’t have an advanced degree in fire science, this doesn’t mean that he is lacking in formal education.  He testified that he was enrolled in many advanced degree programs in fire science, but did not complete these programs.  The court opined that his education, plus his experience with fire investigations is sufficient to qualify him as an expert witness in this case.

Second, the defendants submit a twofold argument on why Zazula’s opinion is not reliable.  First, they argue that he improperly relied on other fire investigators to determine where the fire started.  In addition, they state that Zazula’s methodology is not reliable and his conclusions are speculative.

Zazula stated that he determined that the origin of the fire was in the vehicle in the garage.  He stated that he based his opinion on his investigation as well as the investigation of the other fire officials.  The court opined that it was permissible for Zazula to rely on the determinations of the other on-site investigators.

Also, the court opined that Zazula’s methodology was sufficiently reliable as his deposition outlines the steps he took in reaching his conclusions.  In addition, the court noted that any discussion of any deficits in Zazula’s methodology, as proposed by the defense expert, can be raised on cross-examination.

Last, the court ruled that Zazula’s testimony “fits” this case and there is a valid scientific connection.

Conclusion:  The motion to exclude the expert witness testimony of Michael Zazula is denied.