Fields v. Honeywell International, et al.
Plaintiff sued HPTY’s client, a water heater manufacturer, for approximately $2 million in real and personal property loss after a fire destroyed her house in Parker County, Texas. The house was built in 1999 and had been vacant as a foreclosure for an unknown amount of time before Plaintiff moved in in early November 2005. The fire occurred less than a month later on December 9, 2005. The parties concurred that the fire started in the attached garage, which had not yet been unpacked from the move and was stacked with boxes from floor to ceiling.
As to HPTY’s client, Plaintiff claimed that a defect in the main burner tubing connecting the gas control valve and burner assembly of the water heater caused the fire. According to Plaintiff’s engineering expert, the defect was either that the tubing was not made of sufficient corrosion-resistant material or was not coated with a sufficient corrosion-resistant coating. For one of those two reasons, corrosion formed in the main burner tubing and either: (1) caused the gas control valve to malfunction or (2) obstructed flow through the orifice to the burner in the outlet tube, which requires a constant, fixed rate of flow to burn properly. HPTY’s client’s engineering expert countered that corrosion inside the water heater’s burner tubing would have been a post-fire result after significant fire suppression efforts and being left out in the elements for over a month. He found no defect in the water heater or valve.
Further, HPTY’s client’s cause and origin expert testified that the burn pattern and photographic evidence did not support the idea that the water heater was the origin of the fire. Rather, his theory of causation was that the electrical wiring behind the water heater was the origin of the fire; the water heater was simply a fire victim. From his review of the photographic evidence, the fire appeared to have spread from inside the garage wall out to the water heater as opposed to originating at the water heater and spreading inside the wall.
HPTY’s client developed a unique spoliation theory in this case and argued a motion to strike much of Plaintiff’s expert witness testimony on that basis. Three days after the fire, Plaintiff’s cause and origin expert conducted the initial fire investigation at the scene. HPTY’s client was not notified of this inspection. Plaintiff’s cause and origin expert identified the water heater as a possible origin of the fire and left the scene without moving or covering the water heater. A month later, HPTY’s client was finally advised of a second site inspection. At that time, the water heater was tagged, photographed and shipped by truck to a storage facility in Sugar Land, Texas (approximately 300 miles). Thus, the water heater was left out in the elements for approximately six weeks before being relocated to storage facilities. During this time, no tarps or other protective coverings were put over the water heater and it was exposed to the elements. Weather data from the local airport shows that it rained approximately 3-5 days during this time and the temperatures were at or below freezing. HPTY’s client argued that these acts compromised the condition of the water heater and constituted spoliation of evidence.
After extensive discovery efforts, including multiple fact and expert witness depositions, the case was set for trial in March 2010. At the conclusion of the pretrial conference, the case settled favorably.