Sometimes, creativity and ingenuity are necessary in determining the real cause of a fire. In this case, Stutman Law’s client experienced a very large loss involving a fire at a large cheese processing facility. The fire did not cause much direct fire damage to the building, but did cause significant smoke damage. The lack of direct fire damage allowed Stutman Law to get creative in determining the cause of the fire.
The origin of the fire was plain enough. A large gas fired air handler had overheated, and the fire originated in the burner compartment of the air handler in close proximity to the filters. However, the true cause was not apparent. A competent local fire marshal observed that a cornstarch powder was being used in the production process to prevent caking and sticking of the shredded and sliced cheese product. Dust from the cornstarch powder would become airborne and accumulate in the air handler, particularly at the filters. The local fire marshal concluded that excess cornstarch buildup in the air handler had caught fire.
Stutman Law’s experts were skeptical of the opinion of the local fire marshal, even though he was well trained and competent. They noted that an air handler should not overheat to the point that cornstarch in the filters or anywhere else should catch fire. They suspected that there was a problem with the air handler controls that allowed it to overheat. The challenge was how to figure out what was wrong with the controls after the fire.
Since direct fire damage was limited, Stutman Law’s attorneys proposed replacing the few components of the air handler which had been damaged by the fire and running the air handler to find the problem. The electronic controls had, for the most part, not been damaged by the fire. The trick was coming up with a plan to run the air handler without causing a second fire and re-contaminating the building. A plan was developed that involved placing heat sensors (thermal couplers) at a large number of locations inside the air handler so overheating could be detected early. The plan also involved having a large number of fire extinguishers available, along with people who knew how to use those fire extinguishers.
The tests demonstrated that the air handler lacked, by design, two industry standard safety features that would have prevented the accident. It was determined that on the day of the fire, the main fan drawing air through the air handler had stopped running while the gas burner was firing. This caused the overheating to occur. Most other gas-fired air handlers are equipped with a feature that will shut down the burner if there is inadequate airflow passing through the air handler for any reason. The air handler also lacked a working high temperature limit switch. This is a heat sensor which is designed to shut down the air handler in the event of an overheating situation, before the air handler can damage itself or anything else.
Getting creative by using the product that failed to determine why it failed ultimately resulted in a significant seven figure recovery.