Fire Investigation Points to Design Failure.


Defects that cause problems in machines are categorized into two different concepts. Manufacturing defect is a term that applies to a situation where the defect was unintended. For example, a part was installed that did not meet the designer’s specifications or quality. A design defect is another matter. Design defect is a term that applies to a situation where the defect resulted from a purposeful decision or by failing to investigate or heed available design criteria on the part of a designer or builder.

That was just the case we found when investigating a fire in a large piece of agricultural equipment, which burned a storage shed. The machine itself was a total loss — one magnified by the destruction of nearly a half a million dollars in agricultural chemicals also stored in the shed.

Had the fire investigation not been initiated, the insurer would have never known about a critical design flaw in the equipment: an electrical cable that while insulated chafed to the point that a massive short circuit occurred. Using NFPA 921 methodology and arc mapping, we were able to see not only the origin of the fire but the ignition point, which set off the devastating chain reaction. All of which it turns out could have been prevented with attention to the likely hazard of chafing.

Equipment designers must seek out instances of chafing. This isn’t a new consumer-safety directive — it’s pure science. Agricultural machine designers are just beginning to catch up to aircraft manufacturers who learned from experience many years ago.

What looked like a classic case of a fire in a fertilizer machine was not that at all. It was a fire waiting to happen in every piece of the equipment that existed in the marketplace.

Thankfully, the insurer had the foresight to investigate the fire. Rather than repairing or salvaging the severely burned machinery, we had an opportunity to uncover the real cause — a clearly subrogatable one — and add to the body of knowledge about the problem of chafing.

Courts and juries don’t make awards on what might have happened. They must be presented artifacts — truth, reasons and facts based on clear evidence. In nearly all cases, a forensic fire investigation will uncover exactly what happened and why — even in a case like this where no one saw the spark.

Warren’s forensic engineering and consulting firm, founded in 1997, provides technical investigations and analysis of personal injury and property claims as well as expert testimony for insurance adjusters and attorneys. Extremely well versed in the disciplines of mechanical, electrical, chemical, structural, accident reconstruction and fire and explosion investigation, our engineers and consultants are known for delivering the truth — origin, cause, responsibility and cost of an event or claim — with unmistakable clarity.

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