Boston Massachusetts Personal Injury Attorney, the attorney , reviews a recent Appeals Court case involving an apartment fire:
The Massachusetts Appeals Court has recently reversed the trial court’s decision to exclude a fire inspector’s expert testimony in a case where a plumber may have negligently caused a fire in an apartment.
Michael Paulo, the plumber, used a machine called the IceBreaker 350 to thaw frozen pipes in a Somerville apartment owned by Irena Anderson, before a fire broke out. The pipe-thawing machine was used underneath the sink of the third floor apartment. Before he used the machine, Paulo removed the items that were under the sink, which included some household cleaners and rags.
Paulo told Anderson that he had to run the machine for a longer period than usual because of the severe frozenness of the pipes. As Paulo was consulting with Anderson outside of the house, the second floor resident exited the building and alerted them that a fire had broken out on the third floor.
Paulo alleges that he cleared out the contents from under the sink, used the machine for about ten minutes until the ice started to melt, discontinued use of the machine, and then cleaned up and put the items back under the sink.
It appears that the pipes were still so hot that either their direct contact with the cleaning supplies or the heat generated by the pipes caused the fire. At least that is what Lieutenant Brian Higgins of the Cambridge Fire Department concluded in his official fire inspection report.
Paulo sought to exclude Higgins’ expert testimony from being allowed at trial. Relying on his own retained expert and language in Higgins’ report which stated that the report should be considered “a preliminary origin and cause determination” of the fire, Paulo argued that Higgins’ testimony was too speculative. The trial court agreed with Paulo.
Anderson appealed the trial court’s decision. The Appeals Court determined that Higgins had made a reasonable conclusion that the fire was most likely caused by the cleaning supplies’ close proximity to the hot pipes. The Court emphasized that Higgins had performed his inspection while the fire was still burning. He observed that the most likely origin point of the fire was under the sink because that location was the most charred. Also, Higgins interviewed several key witnesses and ascertained that combustible materials were placed near extremely hot pipes. Based on this evidence, the Court concluded that his deductions were reasonable.
Although, in a deposition, Higgins answered that he did not have a “reasonable degree of scientific certainty” about his opinion, the Court concluded that this answer did not render his report inadmissible. The Court reasoned that his admission did not mean that his report was speculative, just that his answer was a cautionary tactic, knowing Higgins referred to his own report as “preliminary.” Higgins based his report on the probability that the fire was most likely started by the machine, not the possibility that the fire could have been started by the machine. It was this distinction as well as the timing of his inspection that the Court focused on in making their decision.
The Appeals Court reversed the Trial Court’s decision to exclude Higgins’ testimony and remanded the case for further proceedings.
anderson v. paulo