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Addressing Myths and Advancing Science in Fire Litigation


Addressing Myths and Advancing Science in Fire Litigation

June 14, 2012

It is an experience common to fire litigators at trial.  The local fire marshal enters the court room, crisply attired in uniform and hat, ribbons and medals in view.  A stack of certifications attests to years of experience investigating hundreds, maybe thousands, of fires.  An air of detachment and neutrality conveys to the jury that he has “no dog in this fight.”  He calls it as he sees it.  If his findings align with your client’s interests, you have a powerful, often lethal, weapon to use in closing arguments.  If his findings are contrary, you face the unenviable task of undermining his opinions while maintaining a respectful demeanor.

In some instances, the fire marshal is revealed to be a skilled investigator who has reliably applied scientific principles and methods.  On other occasions, he lacks the training, motivation, resources and/or expertise to render a reliable opinion.  The skilled and the unskilled, however, share a desire to be proven correct.  Both will stand firmly by the opinion originally expressed and reported.  While the fire marshal may not have an interest in the outcome of the civil litigation, it is human nature to desire validation.  He does, after all, have a dog in the fight.  Obtaining his concession (or, alternately, showing his refusal to concede to be unreasonable) may be the toughest task at trial.

The contrary fire marshal is just one of many challenges faced by parties in fire litigation.  Fire is, of course, highly destructive.  With more severe and widespread damage comes greater destruction of the very evidence by which the fire origin and cause might have been determined.  And with this destruction comes opportunity for advancing opinions that are scientifically unsound.

This blog is designed to identify, discuss and demystify the many issues faced by fire litigators.  Subjects include fundamental principles of fire science, fire patterns, electricity, origin determination, cause determination, evidence preservation and spoliation, and a wide range of litigation-related considerations.  A well-informed party to fire litigation, armed with science and able to separate myth from fact, is best equipped to counter the contrary fire marshal and the opposing paid expert. 

For more information, contact John P. Freedenberg (716.566.5487 or