Large explosion and catastrophic fire cases require investigating complicated scenes, so how do you know where to start? CLM Wisconsin Chapter President Matt Rosek, who is a partner at the nationally recognized catastrophic fire and explosion law firm McCoy Leavitt Laskey LLC, offered his suggestions for handling these complex cases using one of his most memorable losses as an example.
Rawal: How did you “stop, drop, and enroll” into handling fire claims?
Rosek: While I defend other general liability cases and large water loss matters, fire cases are certainly the bulk of my work. I have a unique perspective on these cases, since I’m a trained and certified firefighter. Prior to going to law school, I earned my credentials and was a local volunteer firefighter. I was also an emergency medical technician (EMT) and responded to a variety of accident, medical, and fire calls. My past emergency service experience easily transferred to my law practice and has given me “street” credibility with local fire marshals and other law enforcement professionals on fire scenes.
Rawal: Why are fire and explosion cases “lit”?
Rosek: The complexity of the issues involved is unique and there is not always a simple answer. The fuel source may be natural gas or a chemical reaction, so origin-and-cause analysis is always involved. Even after discovering the origin and cause of the fire, there is typically a robust debate as to who is responsible. The whole process often involves the use of fire inspectors and a long list of experts, depending on the nature of the incident. Hiring the right experts and exploring these issues organically at a scene inspection or laboratory examination is both an art and science.
Rawal: Tell me about one of your most “igniting” claims?
Rosek: In late spring 2018, I inspected (and later litigated) a claim related to a home that exploded in rural Kansas. There were three deaths, and the damage was cataclysmic. A leak of natural gas into the basement caused the explosion. The gas and air mixture reached a stoichiometric mix (perfect air-fuel mixture). Nearly every square inch of the home was shattered, with debris covering a 100-yard circle around the home.
Initially, I hired a fire investigator who was also a licensed engineer who specialized in gas systems. At the first full-party scene inspection, it was obvious that the party in charge of the scene, the homeowner’s insurer, had not done everything possible to maintain scene security as required by NFPA 921. In fact, they allowed the local Mennonite population to clear debris prior to our scene inspection.
Despite these setbacks, we were able to find the broken hard gas pipe that led from the outdoor gas line into the home. Now the question was: Why did the hard gas line crack?
During the first inspection, the expert and I noticed significant cracks in the poured basement walls. It seemed like we had a lot of wall movement and earth settlement around the basement walls, specifically near where the gas line entered the home. While initially we thought this could be due to the explosion, we surmised there might be another source.
At the second inspection, we brought out a civil engineer with soil and construction experience. We took soil core samples around the home, which showed that the soil was not compacted well, though this was less important than what we found with the construction of the home itself. After piecing together several sections of the home’s sill plates—the wood framing component that lies between a home’s foundation and the first-floor framing—it became evident that there was no anchoring of the manufactured home to the foundation wall. This revelation, combined with the half dozen cracks in the basement walls, provided us with the cause of the gas leak.
One final interesting factual issue: Right up against the outside walls was a narrow sidewalk that snaked around the whole home. Photos of the original construction of the home did not have this sidewalk. When asked at the scene inspection about why this was done post construction, the property owners said they did it to stop the soil from “washing away.” We found our final clue. The experts and I were now able to piece together what caused this incident. The manufactured home was placed on the poured concrete foundation wall and was never anchored properly (which also explained why the explosion was so damaging to the home). The poured basement walls required lateral support to prevent the ground around it from pushing the walls in. Due to this movement, the basement walls started moving, then cracking. This movement over time led to larger and larger cracks, followed by soil subsidence around the outside of the home. Noting the “washing away” of the soil, the fix was to pour a concrete apron around the outside of the home. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the soil from subsiding, but rather hid the continued issues under a layer of concrete. This apron also encapsulated the gas pipe. As the basement walls continued to move inward, the soil continued to subside. These two forces eventually led to the gas line cracking and releasing natural gas into the basement. The gas eventually reached an explosive level, an ignition source was introduced, and the explosion occurred.
Rawal: What can we learn from being in the “embers”?
Rosek: First, personally attend large losses and get your hands dirty. Dig in and figure out what happened. Second, hire top-notch experts in the industries for the issues present in your case. Finally, developing a liability theory that can be supported both factually and with the scientific method will help you maintain a strong defense and negotiation posture to resolve the case.