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Judge Dismisses Suit Alleging Freezer Caused House Fire

Case Study

Judge Dismisses Suit Alleging Freezer Caused House Fire

February 19, 2019

The piece of evidence on which the lawsuit finally turned was smaller than a man’s thumbnail.

A partly melted metal blade from the plug on an electrical cord showed that some other appliance, not the chest-style freezer manufactured by our client, was the source of a March 2011 house fire that led insurers to sue the freezer’s manufacturer for $125,000. Along with damage to the freezer’s own power cord indicating that it hadn’t caused the fire but had been attacked by it, the other appliance’s ruined plug blade and a scientific examination of the evidence by our experts enabled Goldberg Segalla partner Lisa M. Robinson to persuade a judge to dismiss the claim against the freezer’s manufacturer.

Lisa’s successful defense of our client concluded almost a year ago, on April 2, 2018, but the Syracuse-based attorney still clearly remembers the case and the dramatic turn it took in a Lansing, New York, laboratory. The lawsuit stemmed from a predawn fire that destroyed a house in Canton, New York, in March 2011. Based on burn patterns on the freezer and a nearby doorway and on where the fire started—at the north end of the garage, where the freezer was—a St. Lawrence County investigator who arrived on the scene soon after the fire was extinguished concluded it had been caused by an electrical malfunction in the freezer. But years later, at a single-story beige IMR Laboratories’ facility near Ithaca, our expert witnesses found that when viewed through an electron microscope the evidence told a very different story—one that changed the complexion of the case and underscored the importance of using scientific as well as on-the-scene methods to investigate a fire.

“It’s an interesting case,” Lisa says, “one that ultimately turned in our favor on the strength of evidence examined under an electron microscope and a heat-damaged, severed plug prong from another appliance that was found in the outlet where the fire started.”

Present for the pivotal evidence examination in Ithaca were lab technicians; our metallurgist, John Gashinski; our electrical-engineering expert, Jim Crabtree; the plaintiff’s expert witness; and Lisa. A member of our Product Liability Practice Group, Lisa is an experienced trial lawyer who regularly represents manufacturers of industrial and consumer products in federal and state courts. She has defended clients in many personal-injury, property-damage, and fire cases involving alleged design defects and warning claims. And she was watching intently that day in Ithaca as an electron microscope showed that some other appliance, not the freezer manufactured by her client, caused the house fire in Canton.

Lisa wasn’t required to attend the evidence inspection. But most attorneys do, she says, so they can guard the evidence and report back to clients. And it was our expert, Jim Crabtree, who had suggested the examination. What she saw that day has stayed with her. “The most interesting thing about the case,” she calls it. On the power cord from the freezer was evidence of electrical arcing about five inches from the plug, with the wires there showing evidence of external heating. The arcing, Jim concluded, was the result of charring from an external heat source; while plugged in and energized, the freezer had been attacked by a fire that started elsewhere, with another appliance that happened to be plugged into the same duplex outlet as the freezer.

Examining the duplex electrical outlet along with the remains of the freezer’s plug and a severed plug blade from the other appliance that had been found buried in the outlet’s other receptacle box, Jim concluded that the source of the fire was the unknown appliance associated with the plug blade. The blade showed evidence of melting at the tip from an electrical-arc fault. The remains of the receptacle box used by the other appliance showed a large notch near the ground-plug socket.

“The lab studies,” Lisa says, “helped our expert witnesses establish, in a very detailed report, that this other appliance was an alternative cause of the fire”—a scenario the plaintiff couldn’t rule out.

Lisa’s cross-examination of the county fire investigator revealed that his analysis of the fire didn’t account for the telltale plug blade implicating the other appliance and wasn’t up to standards.