The defense of a fire loss claim begins with the fire scene inspection, which usually takes place as soon as possible after a fire to ensure that evidence is collected and preserved to assist in determining a fire’s cause and origin. Time is of the essence because delays can often result in lost evidence due to inclement weather or over-eager owners innocently “cleaning up” the damage. Throughout a scene inspection, the physical damage and relevant fire artifacts are photographed, documented, removed, and preserved by experts. Clients may think that having an attorney also attend a fire loss inspection is an unnecessary expense, especially when paying for a fire cause and origin expert to be there as well, but having legal counsel at the scene can assist in ways well beyond the collection of evidence.
1. Reduces the Length of Investigation Period
At the fire scene, experts are present with the goal of investigating the cause and origin of the fire along with patterns and indicators related to it. At the beginning of a scene inspection, the claimant’s representative presents a short recap of the facts related to the fire in order to assist the experts, engineers, and attorneys present. Experts are not focused on facts that might defend against liability; their goal is to conclude where and how a fire originated and if it originated from their clients’ product. On the other hand, attorneys are focused on defending against liability. As scene inspections are the only occasion when attorneys can analyze the fire scene in its natural state, their observations and questions are focused toward crafting the early stages of their client’s defense in the hope of minimizing or eliminating liability.
The attorneys’ presence also saves insurance carriers on future costs and expenses. Instead of waiting days, or even weeks, for an expert’s findings, photographs, and reports, attorneys can almost immediately advise the carrier of the results of the scene inspection as related to the insured’s product(s). Based simply on what they learned at the inspection, and with the help of the expert, attorneys can often inform their clients that the insured’s product was not at or near the origin of the fire, so there is really nothing to worry about from an “exposure” perspective. On the other hand, if it appears as though an insured’s product may be implicated as the cause of a fire, then the attorney can begin to analyze and evaluate the scene from a damages perspective, providing the carrier with detailed information as to the nature and extent of the fire damage the next day. In either situation, the attorney’s presence will reduce the investigation period and provide the client with an almost immediate answer as to whether or not their insured will be involved in litigation related to the claim.
2. Opportunity to Interact with Claimant’s Attorney
Having an attorney present at an inspection also allows attorneys the opportunity to interact with claimant’s attorneys. Defense attorneys may overhear the other side’s opinions and theories related to the facts of the fire, which in turn allows them to explore other causes of liability, other defenses, and other avenues to recovery. It also gives the attorney notice right up front as to whether its client’s product is a target or merely present at the scene. Of course, it never hurts to have the opportunity to size up opposing counsel right up front, often resulting in a general understanding by counsel as to how serious this subrogation action is likely to be going forward, information the carrier would never know without benefit of counsel.
3. Personal Experience is Invaluable
An attorney’s past experiences, whether it be their expertise gained from previous fire inspections and their defense of prior fire cases, or their own personal life experiences, can come in handy at these fire investigations. In some instances, these experiences directly affect the investigation.
Arnett Law Group’s attorneys have seen the benefits of attending these fire scene inspections firsthand. At one inspection, it was suspected that a number of electronic devices, including a laptop and its battery pack, may have caused a particular office fire. Our attorney was familiar with the laptop brand involved, having owned one that used to overheat and that required ice packs to cool it down. The suspected laptop was the same brand as the one previously owned by the ALG attorney. He relayed his personal experience to claimant’s counsel, which shifted the attorney’s attention from ALG’s client and toward the laptop and battery pack manufacturer. Instead of having to wait until a subsequent artifact inspection to determine if the laptop and its battery pack caused the fire, claimant’s counsel and expert determined that the laptop was one of the primary objects of interest.
In a more recent situation, an ALG attorney was retained after a scene inspection but before the fire artifact and object inspection. The claimant alleged that ALG’s client manufactured a power supply that overheated and caused a printer to start a fire. In the days leading up to the artifact inspection, the ALG attorney identified the type of printer involved and the power supplies used by it. While at the artifact inspection, because of the investigation performed by the ALG attorney, he and his expert determined that the client’s power supply was not used by the printer that caused the fire. Within hours, and more notably, with minimal cost to the client, the ALG attorney effectively concluded that the fire was caused by an unrelated power supply, which left no doubt that the fire was not caused by his client’s product.
Having the benefit of legal counsel at fire scene and artifact inspections can be a game changer when involved with fire loss claims. Not only can it shorten the length of an investigation and provide immediate answers, but it allows the defense to begin from day one. Fire claims often take time to resolve, mainly because claimants have extended statutes of limitations. In Illinois, the property damage statute of limitations is five years (735 ILCS 5/13-205) while in Wisconsin the statute for fire claims is six years (Wis. Stat. Ann. § 893.52(1), (2)). It is for these reasons that it is essential to retain legal counsel with experience in defending fire claims so they can work with insurance carriers and their insureds as partners from the moment that a fire claim is first reported.