The judge overstepped his role by dismissing the fire investigator’s report

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A federal appeals court on Wednesday revived a lawsuit against the owners of an Idaho resort, finding that a district court judge overstepped his bounds by excluding testimony from a fire investigator .

A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Idaho who made it impossible for plaintiffs to prove that a station employee’s negligence caused a fire that destroyed their $1.5 million cabin . The appeals committee said judges are meant to act as gatekeepers, not investigators.

“The court’s responsibility is to ensure that a sufficiently qualified expert applied sound principles in forming his hypothesis, not to assess whether that hypothesis is ultimately correct,” the opinion states.

Maria Fernanda Elousu and Robert Louis Brace owned a vacation cabin at Pistol Creek Ranch, a secluded resort on the banks of the Snake River’s Middle Fork in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness that guests access via a trail. private landing. Middlefork Ranch Inc., a homeowners association, operates the development.

In July 2017, Brace used Penofin brand flammable oil to stain the wraparound deck outside the cabin. The product is sold with labels that warn consumers of potential “spontaneous combustion”. Brace used “copious” amounts of oil and noticed sticky spots when he left the cabin the next morning.

That afternoon, a Middlefork employee stopped by the cabin to check the propane levels. He discovered that a tank which supplied an outside refrigerator on the deck of the Brace and the Elosu was empty and filled it. Before turning on the pilot light in the refrigerator, Elosu warned him about the oil stain, according to the couple’s lawsuit. The employee replied that it should be fine because there was no oil directly under the refrigerator.

Elosu went for a hike with neighbors. When she returned, she found that her cabin had burned to the ground.

Brace and Elosu, both of California, hired a California fire investigator to find out the cause of the fire. Michael Koster of Reliant Investigations visited the remains of the cabin 10 months after the fire. He wrote a 145-page report concluding that the fire started near the propane refrigerator when the pilot light ignited fumes from the Penofrin stain.

Middlefork’s insurance company, Philadelphia Insurance, hired its own fire investigator. The insurer’s adjuster testified that the fire likely started on the southeast side of the patio, not on the north side where the refrigerator was located. He said it was impossible to know the exact origin and relied on statements from witnesses who arrived shortly after spotting the flames.

Middlefork filed a motion to exclude Koster’s testimony, which it called “speculative and unsubstantiated”. U.S. District Court Judge David C. Nye agreed, saying Koster’s opinion on the origin of the fire contradicted the testimony of multiple witnesses and was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Brace and Elosu appealed.

The 9th Circuit panel said Nye’s factual findings on the case “appear to be clearly flawed.” While the judge’s findings indicate that Koster’s theory of the origin of the fire contradicts witness statements, the report explains that a fire can move quickly after igniting and burn hot in an area far from its point of origin, according to the opinion.

The trial court judge also said there was no concrete evidence to support Koster’s opinion, but rejected much of the scientific analysis that formed the basis of his testimony, saying he had concluded that the graphs and photographs attached to the report were not “substantial”.

The panel found that the judge exceeded his limited role as a gatekeeper permitted by Federal Rule 702 evidence. He ignored important supporting documents in Koster’s report, weighed the evidence, discredited the report’s findings, and demanded that Koster provide “concrete physical or physical elements”. testimonial evidence. »

“Quite simply, Koster is a fire investigator,” the panel concluded. “That his testimony is based on circumstantial evidence and inference is neither unusual nor unexpected, as fires routinely destroy all evidence of their origins.”

About the photo: A cabin at Pistol Creek Ranch is shown. Photo courtesy of Zillow.com.

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