Fireplace and Stove Fire Claims--Determining Origin and Cause, and Litigating out of the Ashes
Author: Travis Rhoades
Fall has arrived here in Wisconsin and with it the crisp air, changing leaves and the unmistakable scent of burning hardwood wafting through the neighborhood.
Fireplaces are a common source of house fires. Fireplace and chimney problems are nearly 100% fixable, and the cause of fires associated with fireplaces and chimneys is generally predictable, and most of the fires are ultimately preventable. Among the industry standards governing the design, testing and installation of fireplaces and components are NFPA 211, UL 127, UL737, UL1482 and UL 1777. Most local and state building codes adopt either portions or complete sections of these standards in their fireplace and chimney-specific regulations.
A typical home fireplace includes a hearth, the fireplace itself, the chimney, heat and flame shielding known as fire stop, the cover to the chimney, known as a chase cover, and the chimney cap. Fires associated with fireplaces and chimneys occur for a number of known reasons, including problems with the flue or chimney, problems with the fireplace or firebox, issues involving clearance to combustibles and issues related to a lack of maintenance or care associated with the components listed above.
Stone and Brick Fireplaces
Stone and brick fireplaces and chimneys are often improperly constructed, leading to pockets where creosote or other byproducts of combustion can collect and eventually ignite. Because these stone or brick structures give the impression of permanence and are themselves noncombustible, the owners of these types of fireplaces and chimneys often overlook ordinary maintenance that would prevent fires. Specifically, these would include cleaning, and inspection, repair or replacement of fire brick for other refractory materials in the firebox itself, inspection of the structure for cracks or openings that would allow hot gases from inside the firebox or chimney to communicate readily with the space outside the chimney, but within the structure. These types of cracks are particularly dangerous because they allow the escape and accumulation of not only hot gases, but also carbon monoxide and other byproducts of the types of incomplete combustion that typically occur in solid fuel fireplaces.
Factory Built Fireplaces
Factory built fireplaces must be installed pursuant to the instructions of the manufacturer. Of particular importance are the rules associated with the standoff distance between the components of the fireplace and any combustible framing or other combustible building materials. This is critically important for all components of a fireplace system, from the hearth through the chimney cap. Standoff fires are particularly common in claims involving factory built fireplaces.
Both NFPA 211 and UL 127 require that a factory built fireplace pass tests which ensure that the enclosures that house these fireplaces don’t typically exceed ambient temperature +90°F in the enclosed spaces and ambient temperature +117°F on materials exposed to the opening, which might include the mantle and trim work.
Most current factory – built fireplace designs include tabs around the body of the fireplace unit to ensure that framing standoff distances are maintained. Not all manufacturers utilize mechanical standoffs, and a few will use standoffs on the top of the unit, but not on the sides or the rear. Many have made a successful strategy out of simply tendering fire claims associated with standoffs to the contractors who perform fireplace installations on construction sites. On behalf of installation contractors, I have successfully rejected tenders from several manufacturers in fireplace standoff cases because of the failure of the manufacturer to anticipate the possibility that a pre-manufactured fireplace, otherwise correctly set in place at a building site, might be moved after the contractor leaves the premises in order to accommodate finishing work or additional framing. Attorneys representing contractors are doing their clients a disservice when they advise accepting these tenders, without first fully conducting a factual review of the file.
Further, at least in Wisconsin, the supplier of a product may be absolved from liability for any causal defect or deficiency in that product if the manufacturer is subject to jurisdiction in the Wisconsin courts. At the very least, a complete review of the facts and circumstances involving the installation of the fireplace must be conducted before responding to any tender.
Venting, Firestop and Insulation
The installation of venting from a factory built fireplace must comply with both the manufacturer’s instructions, and the standards set forth in UL 127.
Separation of these components from combustible materials is critically important, and fires caused by the installation of the venting, or framing or insulation in close proximity to that venting makeup of a substantial percentage of home fires.
Critical components in these systems include fire stop, which is a mechanism, usually a sheet of galvanized steel that serves as a support for fireplace venting, a standoff between the venting and the combustible framing in a chimney, and also as a method of containment of a fire inside a chimney space. The particular requirements for the installation of fire stop this found in NFPA 211, but generally fire stop is required to be installed each time the chimney passes through a floor or level of the building. In the event of vaulted ceilings, fire stop is to be installed every 10 feet.
Another critical component of fireplace venting is the attic insulation shield. This product can be a factory made component, but also can be fashioned by the installer out of sheet metal or some other non-combustible material. Attic insulation shields exist solely to provide a standoff between the galvanized steel venting and any roll or blown-in insulation materials used in the construction process. Cellulose insulation is very common in both new construction and in the reapplication of insulation and existing buildings. Its application typically involves blowing the insulation through large tubes into attic spaces which are often otherwise inaccessible. When those attic spaces also include some portion of the chimney, without a strict adherence to the requirements set forth by NFPA and UL, the result can be disastrous. The absence or problematic construction or installation of the attic insulation shield is another common cause of fireplace and chimney fires.
Fireplace fires can vary wildly in potential damages. Damage caused by small, contained fires may be repairable for often insignificant amounts of money. However, typical claims involve a thumbnail estimate of the adjuster, which can be grossly inaccurate. These inaccuracies usually undervalue the claim. Fire, water and smoke damage is pervasive and often requires extensive cleaning, replacement of contents and repair work which may not be evident from an initial walk-through evaluation.
Further, there are many categories of investigators who advertise themselves as origin and cause evaluators. Increasingly, these investigators are subject to the Daubert analysis, which puts to the test their qualifications and the methodology they employ to come to their opinions about the origin and cause of the fire. It is important to retain expert witnesses who are credentialed and willing to speak freely about their origin and cause methodology.
I have attended a number of fire scene inspections where the usual gang of origin and cause investigators wanders around, locates the spot where the most fire damage appears, and pronounces this area as the origin of the fire. This type of analysis ignores the scientific aspects of fire scene evaluations and may completely derail an evaluation of the origin of a particular fire with far-reaching consequences. There are many factors which can affect an origin and cause evaluation. One of those factors is ventilation, which can have a dramatic effect on the areas of a structure which suffer the greatest fire damage. We have been able to establish that the ventilation patterns in particular rooms can shift the area of greatest fire damage to a distance of 10 feet or more from the known origin point of a fire.
The point is that forensic origin and cause of evaluation should be a scientific process, which must be accomplished by qualified experts who employ proven and reliable methods to come to their opinions. When litigating fire claims, you don’t want to be the party whose “expert” was struck because she was unqualified or because he skipped 10 steps in the accepted investgation methodology in reaching his opinions about fire origin.
Fire claims involving fireplaces typically come together quickly, and effectively investigating those claims requires a team of experienced and qualified representation, and similarly experienced and qualified investigators and experts. At Crivello Carlson we have litigated fire claims in Wisconsin and across North America for over 40 years. In that time, we have developed a network of experienced consultants who we are able to call upon on short notice to perform inspections of new loss sites. Further, we have cultivated contacts in the expert and consultant community who are qualified to comment on the design, installation and maintenance of fireplaces as they pertain to fire origin and cause evaluations.