Fire Loss - An Overview
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 1,642,500 fires were reported in the United States in 2006. These fires resulted in 3,245 civilian deaths, 16,400 civilian injuries, 89 firefighter deaths and over $11 billion in property damage. Burn victims and their families endure extreme physical and emotional trauma at the time of injury, during treatment and after recovery. Even if a fire does not cause any injuries, the cost of property damage can be tremendous. Any personal injury or wrongful death claims for burns and deaths caused by fire or smoke inhalation or claims for property damage present complex legal and factual questions. An experienced attorney can help you sort through these issues.
There are three necessary parts of a fire: fuel, heat and air. A fire will burn until one of these parts is taken away. A fire has the following stages:
- Ignition — fuel, heat and air (oxygen) combine in a sustained chemical reaction
- Growth — the fire spreads when additional fuel ignites and the fire's size increases across more surfaces and to the ceiling, if indoors
- Fully developed — the temperature reaches its apex, the fire has spread to most, if not all, of the available fuel and the fire quickly consumes oxygen
- Decay (burnout) — the fire looses intensity, the temperature decreases and the fire uses available fuel
Major causes of fires in homes include: cooking equipment, heating equipment, electrical or lighting equipment, candles, clothes washers and dryers, smoking materials, exposure and playing with a heat source (matches, lighters).
Building a Case
Determining the Cause: An individual who is burned in a fire or whose property was damaged by a fire will likely want to try to recover damages for his or her injuries or losses. One of the first steps the injured person should take is to determine the cause of the fire. Many times, this is not easy because fires destroy evidence. The injured person's attorney, working with a fire investigator, should view and inspect the scene of the fire to determine the cause. They should pay particular attention to the area that is most burned as this is likely where the fire started. Evidence collected from the premises should be logged and analyzed.
Witnesses: The injured party's attorney should also try to obtain statements from a variety of witnesses, including any eye witnesses to the fire and others who were injured in the fire. Counsel should also interview emergency personnel who responded to the fire such as firefighters, ambulance crew, EMTs and police.
Determining Damages: Counsel should speak to any doctors, nurses, burn unit staff and physical therapists who treated the injured party to find out the extent of the injuries, the necessary treatment and expected prognosis. Accurately and completely documenting the client's injuries, pain and suffering and how his or her life has been affected by the fire is crucial to recovering fair compensation. The injured party should photograph his or her burns and keep a log of daily treatments and therapy, his or her pain (both physical and psychological) and how the healing process is progressing. It is also important to note whether the injured party has had or will undergo any surgical procedures to fix the damage, including whether he or she will require plastic surgery.
Legal Theories Used in Fire Loss Cases
Claims for injuries and losses caused by fire are usually brought under the legal theories of negligence or product liability. Injuries, death and other losses from a fire may occur because some person or entity has failed to fulfill a legal duty to do something to protect others. Recovery for such fire losses because of a failure (or breach) of duty is based on the legal theory of negligence. To establish negligence, a plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff; that the defendant breached that duty; that the breach caused the plaintiff's injuries; and damages. Building owners, landlords, tenants, architects and even firefighters have been held legally responsible for fire losses because of negligence.
If it can be proved that a defective product caused a fire or failed to operate properly to suppress a fire, then product liability may allow recovery against the manufacturer or seller of the defective product. The product could be consumer goods, such as sleepwear or camping gear, or industrial items like building materials and actual fire-detection or suppression products. To prove a claim for product liability, the plaintiff must show that the product was actually defective, improperly designed or that the defendant was otherwise at fault; that the defendant actually manufactured, distributed, sold or installed the product; and that the defendant's act or omission proximately caused the plaintiff's injury.
From trauma to trial, fire loss victims and their families face great hardship. Burn victims must deal with intense pain both during and after injury and throughout recovery. They and their families must deal with the emotional, social and financial ramifications of injuries that heal but may never completely disappear. A personal injury attorney, who is experienced in all aspects of fire-related litigation, can guide you through the legal process.
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