Electrical Engineering Expert Investigates Fire Allegedly Sparked by Snowplow

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on July 30, 2020

Electrical Engineering Expert Investigates Fire Allegedly Sparked by Snowplow

Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of New York
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Argonaut Ins. Co. v. Samsung Heavy Indus. Co.
Citation: 929 F. Supp. 2d 159

Facts

This case involves determining the cause of a fire within a town’s highway department building. On the day of the fire, the highway superintendent arrived at the building’s garage at 4:30 a.m. to prep for snow clearing. The town had three trucks in the garage to remove ice and snow ice and an SL 12-2B (Samsung Loader) for loading rock salt into the vehicles. The remaining workers arrived later and started the Samsung Loader and the snowplow trucks to warm the vehicles up before going on their separate journeys. The superintendent drove the Loader and loaded salt on each truck. He then left the Loader on a ramp just outside the garage while the rest of the team finished clearing snow.  At 7:30 a.m., the superintendent left the garage.

A different worker drove the Loader from the ramp back into the garage when the other workers returned with the rest of the trucks. Just after 8:00 a.m., the worker contacted the superintendent to inform him that the staff had finished their assignments and were leaving for the day. No employee remembered any issues with the Samsung Loader’s operation that day. At around 9:10 a.m., a nearby property owner observed black smoke coming from the building and called the fire department and the superintendent. A fire inspector from the Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigated the cause and origin of the fire.

The plaintiffs, the insurers, sought to recover insurance money paid to the town for the fire from the manufacturer of the Loader. The plaintiffs alleged that the Loader’s battery cable ground faulted, and ignited surrounding combustible items. The plaintiffs claimed three causes of action: negligent design and manufacture, failure to warn, and strict liability. The plaintiffs also sought to exclude the defendant’s electrical engineering expert witness.

The Electrical Engineering Expert Witness

The electrical engineering expert held a postgraduate degree in engineering and worked as an electrical engineer for numerous organizations from 1960 to 1994. He had served as an engineering consultant since 1994 and investigated mechanical and electrical equipment failures that caused fire, property damage, and personal injury. The expert testified that all related records, including but not limited to the Loader’s wiring diagram, photos, and deposition transcripts, were analyzed.  He also consulted another expert’s results from performing physical tests of the Samsung Loader and inspection of the electrical architecture.  Based on all the available facts, the expert concluded that an electrical fault in the Samsung Loader was not the cause of ignition and that the electrical activity observed on the positive battery cable originated from an impinging spark.

The plaintiffs contended that the expert’s testimony was inadmissible because he was an electrical engineer not qualified to testify as a cause and origin expert. They also argued that his opinions were unreliable as he did not perform any tests or experiments and rather depended on another expert’s data and results to form them.

The defendant argued that their expert was not engaged to ascertain the cause and origin of the explosion but to analyze the Samsung Loader’s electrical system and assess how the detected electrical arcing caused the fire to erupt.

Discussion

The court noted that fire experts frequently rely on other experts’ findings in drawing their own conclusions. An expert need not run his own experiments and can rely on data he didn’t actually gather. Further, the court explained that the plaintiffs did not present any case in favor of exclusion. Regarding the plaintiff’s other claims concerning the testimony’s structure and content, the court was convinced that the expert’s opinions were the product of reliable principles and methods. The court concluded that the expert applied these concepts to the facts of the case in a reliable manner.

Held

The plaintiff’s motion to exclude the defendant’s electrical engineering expert was denied.

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