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Fire Investigation – The First 72 Hours Protecting Your Interests


A fire starts in a section of a multi-tenant warehouse and eventually destroys the entire structure and contents. The owner of the building is not one of the tenants and all of the tenants sustained fire and smoke damage. The fire is determined by the local fire department to have started in one of the tenant’s spaces and the cause attributed as electrical.

When it comes to resolving liability in fire claims, identifying the origin and cause is a key step. Given the information gathered in the example above, there are many interested parties that will be looking to one another to try to recover damages from the loss. The adjuster for the tenant where the fire started might assume that their insured’s liability policy would be responsible for the entire loss, but rarely are losses that simple.

Back to the case above, electrically initiated fires are over-reported and this is a very generic description. What if renovations had been recently performed? What if parts of the building were improperly separated, from a fire perspective, allowing the fire to spread from one space into another? What really failed? Why? Was it a building system or a tenant’s device? What if it was found that a fire suppression system failed to activate? All of these questions could lead to information that might shift liability, but they need to be identified during the initial investigation if they are to result in successful subrogation.

The first 72 hours following a fire loss are critical to the engineering investigation. This is when a fire investigator is best positioned to identify the origin and cause. It is also the time when contributory components should be assessed and identified in order to preserve evidence for subrogation opportunities later on.

Subrogation opportunities don’t always exist, nor should they be frivolously pursued. However, it is important to look past the initial causation layer to determine if any third party might be responsible for the loss or any portion of it.

Contributory Components
One of the challenging aspects of fire investigation is the multi-disciplinary nature of the investigator’s job. Fires can be caused by, or involve, multiple contributing components. Consequently, private fire investigators need to understand not only the science of fire behaviour, but also have a working understanding of building construction, electrical/mechanical systems and product design.
In a fire loss, your fire investigator must be able to evaluate the components or systems related to the cause of the loss.

Evidence Preservation
Physical evidence critical to pursuing a successful subrogation claim can be destroyed during the restoration process if it is not identified during the initial investigation as being significant to the loss. Identifying the right physical evidence to preserve in fire losses can be difficult. The fire investigator needs to identify any significant physical evidence related to the cause and spread of the fire to ensure that the evidence is preserved. During the preservation process, photographs need to be taken to ensure that the context is captured, including where the physical evidence was located and how it was found. If done properly, any issues related to spoliation of the evidence will be avoided.

Notifying Potentially LiableThird Parties
Once the physical evidence has been identified and properly preserved, it is important that potentially liable third parties be notified. While it is not the role of the fire investigator to do this, it is a critical step in protecting your interests. As potentially liable third parties are identified (manufacturer or installers of suspect components), notice should be communicated with limited (if any) evidence alteration. When alteration of evidence (i.e. destructive and/or non-destructive testing) is required as part of the ongoing investigation, each party should be notified and invited to attend if they choose.

Many sound subrogation opportunities are compromised due to spoliation of evidence either because it was not identified as being contributory during the initial investigation, or because the evidence was altered during the investigation or in subsequent analysis. While subrogation is often pursued after the payment of a claim has been made, it is often too late to identify potentially liable third parties once the scene has been restored and the evidence is gone.

Identifying and protecting subrogation opportunities is vital in the first 72 hours after a fire loss is critical. Involving a forensic engineering investigator at the outset of a fire claim investigation can help ensure that your interests are protected.
 


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