Fire Expert Witnesses Testimony Allowed

Plaintiffs filed a declaratory judgment against the defendant after a hotel fire.  Plaintiff hired two Fire Expert Witnesses to provide testimony.  Defendant filed a motion to exclude these experts from testifying.  The district court denied the motion to exclude and the appeals court affirmed the motion of the district court.

Facts:  This case (Allstate Indemnity Co. v. Dixon – United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit – August 1st, 2019) involves a fire at a hotel.  After the fire, the plaintiff insurance company concluded that the fire was set by or at the direction of the defendant.  The plaintiff paid the defendants around $100,000 under the terms of the policy and then filed a declaratory judgment against the defendants stating that they violated the intentional acts exclusion of the policy and that the plaintiff was entitled to recover its payment.  The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied by the court.  The plaintiff hired two Fire Expert Witnesses to provide testimony.  The defendants filed a motion to exclude the expert witness testimony of these experts, which was denied by the district court.  The defendants have appealed the opinion of the district court.

Discussion: The first fire expert that was hired, Terry Decker, collected data about the incident and the fire scene.  As part of his investigation, Decker came up with numerous hypotheses to explain the cause of the blaze.  After weighing his hypotheses against the evidence that he collected, he determined that the fire must have been burning when or shortly after the defendant left the property.  Decker opined that he could not rule out that the fire was intentionally set.

The second fire expert, Robert Wysong, was hired to review the fire given the tight timeline that Decker provided.  After considering a number of hypotheses, Wysong concluded that the fire must have been burning for more than an hour before discovery or that the area of origin was not a single location.

The defendants argue that the plaintiffs fire experts’ testimony should not be admitted because they did not precisely follow the industry guide NFPA 921, specifically, the lack of physical testing.  The court notes that where testing is not feasible, observations coupled with expertise may form the basis of an expert opinion.  The court notes that the defendant’s fire experts thoroughly explained their methodologies and explained why their methods were scientifically reliable, even when physical testing was not an option.

The appeals court notes that the “flexible inquiry” that courts conduct under Rule 702 and the numerous explanations that fire experts provide for their methodology choice can lead to different opinions as to whether to admit them as experts.  The court then cites to two opinions, one where they ruled that a fire expert should be admitted and one where they ruled that they should be excluded.

The appeals court ruled that the district court did not make a “clear and prejudicial” error affecting the outcome of the proceeding.

Conclusion:  The motion to overturn the opinion of the lower court admitting the expert opinions of the fire experts is denied.