In the past, forensic investigator Randolph Harris would go to a typical fire or explosion scene, investigate the cause, determine the responsible party and advise that company it might be the target of a claim.
These days, claim management has changed. Now, when an investigator goes to a fire or explosion scene, the insurance companies or litigators advise everyone—the general contractor, the electrician, the gas company, the regulator manufacturer, the gas piping manufacturer, the gas tank manufacturer, the person who installed the gas system, and the person who installed the boiler or the water heater.
“This is because so many of them use a ‘shotgun’ approach to litigation,” Harris said. “Scatter the blame everywhere and have each party prove their non-culpability.”
As a result, sometimes as many as 20 to 30 investigators show up at an accident site.
“It’s a waste of money and time because a majority of the people who show up for the investigation are representing people who are completely innocent,” Harris stated in an interview with BPN.
Harris is scheduled to give a presentation on accident investigation Saturday, April 14 at the National Propane Gas Association Southeastern Convention in Atlanta. He works for Fay Engineering (Denver), a firm with a client list that includes propane companies. Harris, a chemical engineer whose graduate work was in materials science, has investigated more than 500 explosions, 2000 fires, and 100 carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning incidents. In the beginning of his presentation, he tells propane marketers to be ready with a good lawyer.
Frequently, the main focus after a loss is clean-up, Harris pointed out. This sense of urgency to get the scene cleaned up is the innocent parties’ worst enemy. The unsophisticated fire investigator might fail to recognize key evidence that can subsequently be lost in clean-up. Harris noted that some less-than-professional investigators won’t do the hard work to figure out the true cause of the fire. Placing the blame on the gas company, he said, is the easiest solution. In those cases, a thorough investigation that uses key evidence along with a solid fact-based analysis will be the company’s best defense. The company needs a forensic engineer who is not only familiar with gas and propane fires but also with the many other possible causes as well. A gas expert might not recognize arson or other factors that could exonerate a supplier. Delays in thorough scene investigation or in receiving a laboratory examination of secured appliances can result in missing the actual cause. A good investigator, Harris added, can determine whether the gas system or something else caused the accident.
About 20% of the time, the damage is too severe to determine a cause. “But investigators are pushed by insurance companies to find a cause, nevertheless,” Harris stated. “I have had cases where an entire two-story building is destroyed, with only burned debris at the foundation remaining. Melted electrical wires could be seen throughout all areas.” Another, less-than-professional, investigator might say, “I think it’s the boiler,” based on nothing more than an interview and a quick survey of the scene. “But the fire was so severe that all the controls on the boiler were melted away,” Harris stated. ”So the boiler can’t be tested to prove whether it was or was not the cause. Too often there is a claim anyway. The boiler manufacturer and the boiler installer will have to defend themselves. In a total burn-down, it’s pretty much impossible to accurately determine the cause.”
Harris was able to prove the fire did not start in the boiler room. “However, the plaintiff will sue the boiler manufacturer, believing the company will settle the case because that will cost less than the litigation process.”
Unfortunately, this is true with various types of accidents, whether it is a propane gas explosion, fire, or CO incident.
“Homeowners and appliance installers often make errors that result in an accident,” Harris said. “But in most situations the gas companies are forced to defend themselves anyway, even though they are not at fault.”
Harris talked about the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 921, which is the Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. The guide provides a “scientific method” that an investigator should use. Developing a hypothesis of causation is a first step in that method. Testing the hypothesis and analyzing the results are the next steps. If the cause of the accident is found not to be the cause from the hypothesis, the investigator should work through the steps again, with a different hypothesis.
“The analysis, or testing the hypothesis, is really the meat of the investigation,” Harris noted. “Most fire investigators don’t perform this most important test. They often jump to a cause, then try to massage the evidence to fit this cause. They often say they tested their theory deductively. What they mean is, they think that is the cause, but they can’t prove it. Their hasty, unproven conclusion can force the gas company, manufacturer or contractor to defend themselves.”
Harris also has seen this scenario in his work investigating several CO cases. In one case, a plumber installed a gas furnace and gas water heater in a home’s garage closet room. The amount of combustion air in the closet was inadequate. When the heaters operated, CO was produced in the closet and distributed throughout the house through gaps in the air conditioning return air vents. This sickened and hospitalized the residents. The litigation focused on the plumber and the gas company. Harris, representing the gas company, proved the gas company had no culpability because it didn’t install the appliances.
In another CO case involving propane, a plumber installed a 90%-efficient residential boiler using PVC pipes for the flue. The plumber did not attach the PVC pipe correctly, and the PVC pipe later came off the flue, causing the boiler to dump CO into the boiler room. The couple’s bedroom was above the boiler room, and the CO leak killed all of the family members. “A simple thing like a PVC pipe being inadequately glued is an oversight that resulted in a big loss,” Harris explained.
Sometimes the fault lies with the homeowners themselves. In one case, a homeowner poured concrete around a gas pipe. The dirt below the concrete settled and pulled the pipe fitting apart, causing a propane leak that resulted in an explosion. The homeowner should be responsible because he improperly embedded the gas pipe in concrete, Harris noted. But the homeowner sued the gas company anyway. “If we hadn’t made a thorough investigation to find the open fitting, it would have cost the gas company over $1 million,” Harris said.
Harris also investigates gas plant explosions. In one case, a hose popped off while a propane truck was off-loading. A hose fitting with threads that were 75% worn was the cause. Propane sprayed 80 feet across the parking lot, ignited, heated another tanker that exploded and landed on the storage tanks, destroying the entire plant. All this because of a worn fitting that should have been replaced.
The main message Harris wants to impress on propane marketers is that little oversights can cause big problems, including explosions and death. He also emphasizes that marketers should be proactive in hiring a capable and knowledgeable investigator who will later aid in defending the company if necessary.
“There are multiple possible causes of a fire or explosion,” he said. “Each should be thoroughly examined. Part of determining the cause is elimination of other possible causes. If you can’t eliminate all other possible causes, you usually can’t prove what the real cause was. Speculation won’t cut it — you have to be able prove it.”