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Breaking Legal Developments

05-28-2001

Published by:
Peter A. Lynch, Esq.
of Cozen O'Connor
palynch@cozen.com
http://www.cozen.com

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:      This weekly newsletter covers:

  1. Virginia Court Upholds Arson Conviction Based on Circumstantial Evidence
  2. Iowa Court Finds Faulty Welding Negligence Caused Fire


(1) VIRGINIA COURT UPHOLDS ARSON CONVICTION BASED ON CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

In Neblett v. Commonwealth, No. 1247-00-2 (May 22, 2001), the Virginia Court of Appeals reviewed the defendant's arson conviction. The defendant and victim had a romantic relationship that became contentious. They had an argument over TV sets. The victim stated that on January 27, 2000, she told him that she no longer wanted to see him. He became "upset." That evening, she "heard the door bash open" and "[he] was standing in [her] foyer." He was "staggering," and she could smell alcohol on his breath. He went to the basement and stated, "I'm not going anywhere, I am not leaving." She left and called the police from a nearby store.

Officer William Bryant arrived at the store to take her report and as she was talking to him, someone ran past her and said a house was on fire. The house was hers. It was destroyed by the fire. William M. Martin of the Fire Marshall's Office investigated the fire. Upon being qualified as an expert witness, Investigator Martin explained that fires are either accidental or intentional. He identified photographs of several rooms in the house. He discussed where the fires had been set and the burn patterns in those rooms. He explained the fire's progress through the house and noted that no accelerants had been used. Christopher Moody testified that, while returning home from the bank on the evening of January 27, 2000, he saw a fire inside the victim's house. He knocked on the front and rear doors "to wake up anybody who happened to be asleep inside. William Downs testified that on January 27, 2000, he saw "a man run around from the side of the house through the front yard and into a car that was parked on the curb." He testified that the car was a "blue sedan" bearing a license plate that read "Big L." He stated that the man tried to drive away quickly, but had a difficult time because of the weather conditions. He could not identify the man.

The circumstantial evidence sufficiently supported Neblett's arson conviction. Pelt testified that on the night of the fire, Neblett entered her house upset and intoxicated. He was alone in the house for about twenty minutes before the fire was detected. Mr. Downs and Ms. Vincelli saw a man running from the house and attempting to leave the area hurriedly in a "blue sedan" bearing the license plate "Big L." The defendant was found in possession of that car. This evidence was sufficient to support the arson conviction.


(2) IOWA COURT FINDS FAULTY WELDING NEGLIGENCE CAUSED FIRE

In Reynolds v. Reynolds, No. 1-090/00-0453 (May 23, 2001), the Iowa Court of Appeals reviewed a civil judgment arising out of a fire. Marvin L. Reynolds (Marvin) was the owner of property. In 1996 and 1997, he leased this acreage to his son, Bradley Reynolds (Bradley). The acreage contains a house, a barn, a corncrib, and a two garage that was about twenty feet from the house. The garage was of wood frame construction with a cement floor and was constructed about 1948. It has its original wiring, however, some new wiring has been added for lights and Bradley's welding equipment.

Bradley used the garage to repair old cars. He had stored parts for automobiles and motorcycles in the garage, as well as flammable materials. These materials included paint, gasoline, and welding supplies. The welding supplies included three acetylene tanks, three oxygen tanks, and two CO2 tanks, as well as cutting torches, welding torches, and other supplies.

On December 31, 1996, Bradley filled the gasoline tank on his 1962 Ford Galaxy. Upon returning home, he backed into the garage because he wanted to work on an area in the trunk.

Bradley's welding equipment was immediately behind the automobile as he placed it in the garage. He had precut pieces of metal which he intended to use to patch holes in the firewall inside the left corner of the trunk.

Bradley used a "wire welder." This type of welding causes sparks to fly within a two-foot radius of the area that is being welded. Before beginning this operation, Bradley removed the trunk liner from the car which exposed the rear seat.

In the normal operation of this type of welding, a shield is placed in an appropriate position to contain the sparks that are generated from the welding operation. On the evening in question, Bradley did not use any type of shield in order to contain the sparks. At about midnight, Bradley interrupted his work and went into the house for New Year's Eve. Later he came back to the garage and continued his work. He stayed in the garage for about one-half hour after he completed the welding. At about 1:00 a.m., Bradley returned to the house and went to bed.

At about 5:00 a.m., he was awakened by a neighbor who advised him the garage was fully engulfed in flames. At the trial, Bradley speculated the fire could have been caused by a mouse eating through old wiring in the garage or arson. However, in a statement given on January 20, 1997, shortly after the incident in question, Bradley conceded the gas tank in the automobile had a "seep". He also speculated a spark from the welding could have gotten into the back seat. He felt the hot spot was the rear of the car.

The trial court found the fire was caused by a spark which flew from Bradley's weld of the fire wall in the trunk of the car and settled in flammable material in the rear seat of the car and the spark continued to smolder and was fueled by a seep in the gas tank. The court further found the fire then spread to flammable material stored by Bradley in the wood-frame garage which caused the fire to burn out of control resulting in a total loss.

The court found Bradley was negligent in the following particulars:

  1. In failing to shield the weld to keep the sparks from contacting flammable materials in the rear seat of the car, knowing of a seep in the gas tank.
  2. In welding in a structure that was not suitable due to the wood-frame construction of the garage and storage of flammable materials in the garage.

The trial court found the negligence and fault of Bradley was a proximate cause of the damage to Marvin and entered judgment.

In order to prevail on a claim of negligence, the plaintiff must establish the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty, the breach was the actual and a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, and the plaintiff suffered damages. The mere occurrence of an accident without more is not proof of negligence. The plaintiff carries the burden of producing evidence from which reasonable persons may conclude that upon the whole, it is more likely the event was caused by the negligence than it was not. When direct evidence is not available, a plaintiff may rely on circumstantial evidence.

Bradley contended there was no competent evidence as to the causation of the fire. In argument he contended, there are alternative causes of fire and expert opinions are necessary.. It is true during the trial Bradley opined the fire could have been caused by arson or an electrical malfunction. However, there was no evidence introduced with respect to either one of those theories. The only evidence introduced pertained to the welding that was done on the evening in question.

Bradley also cited Limbeck v. Interstate Power Co., 69 F.2d 249 (8th Cir. 1934), Ruth v. O'Neill, 245 Iowa 1158, 66 N.W.2d 44 (1954); Moyers v. Sears-Roebuck & Co., 242 Iowa 1039, 48 N.W.2d 881 (1951); and Walters v. Iowa Elec. Co., 203 Iowa 467, 212 N.W. 886 (1927). He contends these cases support his contention expert testimony was necessary to establish the cause of fire in this situation. The court stated those cases stand for the proposition expert testimony is authorized but is not required and circumstantial evidence may be relied upon to establish the cause of the fire.

The Appellate Court reviewed the evidence in the case. Marvin had produced evidence from which reasonable persons may conclude upon the whole it is more likely the fire was caused by the negligent welding by Bradley than not. There was competent evidence as to the causation of fire and the trial court did not err in so finding.

Mr. Lynch can be reached at Cozen and O'Connor, 501 West Broadway, Suite 1610, San Diego, California 92101, 800-782-3366 (voice), 619-234-7831 (fax), palynch@cozen.com (e-mail), http://www.cozen.com. Follow us on Twitter at @firesandrain.

Please direct comments, suggestions, stories, and other items to the author by e-mail at palynch@cozen.com

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