Fire Expert Witness Testimony Allowed in Part in Smoke Case

Summary: Defendant hired a Fire Expert Witness to provide testimony in smoke inhalation case.

Facts:  This case (Dillon v. Maxus Properties Inc et al – United States District Court – Eastern District of Arkansas – April 9th 2019) involves the death of Jannell Dillon.  Dillon died from smoke and soot inhalation after she entered her apartment to extinguish a fire.  Her estate have sued the companies that managed and owned the apartment complex, alleging that the defendants beached duties because the smoke detector within her apartment did not sound an alarm during the fire.  The defendant has hired Fire Expert Witness Ryan Baker to provide testimony.  The plaintiff has filed a motion to exclude this expert from testifying.

Discussion:  Baker opines that 1) the fire originated in the apartment’s west bedroom; 2) Dillon’s bed linens were the first ignited material; 3) the most probable cause was heat produced from an unattended or improperly discarded smoldering cigarette; 4) the cigarette ignited the bed linens or blankets and Dillon discarded the cigarette; and 5) an intentional act could not be eliminated.  The plaintiff argues that Baker failed to adhere to the National Fire Protection Association standards in investigating the fire.

Baker concluded that the fire was caused by a cigarette based on numerous scene inspections, a two-day laboratory examination of evidence from the scene, interviews with witnesses, and an affidavit from Dillon’s neighbor.  The court notes that Baker did not conduct each of the inspections and examinations himself, but under NFPA 921, a fire investigator may rely on the findings of others.

The plaintiff argues that Baker did not analyze the bedding itself, but it has pointed to nothing in NFPA 921 that requires such specific testing.  In addition, many items from the fire scene were tested.

The court opines that most of Baker’s testimony is admissible and that any purported flaws in his testimony go to the weight of the evidence, not the admissibility.  As an example, Baker states that he doesn’t know what materials the blankets were made of.  The court opines that the plaintiffs will be able to address this flaw in front of the jury.

The court does opine that Baker may not testify that Dillon herself discarded a smoldering cigarette.  The court opines that this testimony is not scientific, technical, or purported to be within Baker’s expertise.   In addition, the court opines that a fire investigator should usurp the province of the jury by testifying as to who caused the fire.

Conclusion:  The motion to exclude the expert witness testimony of Ryan Baker is granted in part and denied in part.