Federal District Court in Mississippi Provides Good Discussion of Negative Corpus from NFPA 921

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi recently handed down its opinion in Russ v. Safeco Insurance Company of America, 2013 WL 1310501 and the opinion provides a good example of the 2011 change in NFPA 921 commonly known as the negative corpus. In Russ, plaintiff was an insured of Safeco Insurance Company at the time he suffered a fire loss for property located in Ovett, Mississippi. Safeco denied the claim asserting various defenses to coverage, such as plaintiff’s failure to submit to an EUO and that the fire loss was incendiary. The court had before it several competing motions, including plaintiff’s motion to strike Safeco’s origin and cause expert, primarily on the basis that the investigator’s initial and addendum report conflicted and for the investigator’s alleged failure to follow NFPA 921.

The court set forth in its analysis that NFPA 921 has “established guidelines and recommendations for the safe and systematic investigation or analysis of fire and explosion incidents. It even cited the 8th Circuit opinion previously reported on this blog, Russell v. Whirlpool Corp., 702 F.3d 450, 454 (8th Cir. 2012). However, the court also stated that reliance on a methodology other than NFPA 921 does not necessarily render an expert’s opinions, per se, unreliable. Schlesinger v. United States, 212 WL 407098 (EDNY 2012) Although the court seemed to recognize that an expert could rely on methodology other than NFPA 921, it found that NFPA 921 was applicable to the Safeco expert’s opinions because “an expert who purports to follow NFPA 921 must apply its contents reliably.” In other words, this court believed that you did not necessarily have to follow NFPA 921, but if an expert did choose to utilize it, the investigator would be required to follow it in toto.

The court went on to provide a good discussion of the history of the negative corpus which began in 1992. Negative corpus was initially used to deem a fire incendiary by ruling out the possibility of any accidental cause. However, in 2011, the NFPA rejected the use of the negative corpus, finding that the process was not consistent with the scientific method. The court sided with approval in NFPA 921, Section 18.6.5 (2011 Ed.) stating “it is improper to base hypotheses on the absence of any support of evidence . . . that is, it is improper to opine a specific ignition source that has no other evidence to support it, even though all other hypothesized sources were eliminated.”

Applying this rationale to the facts of the case, the court found that no foundational evidence or specific facts such as eye witness testimony or the finding of an accelerant were cited by Safeco’s expert in support of his conclusions. Instead, the investigator simply speculated that the fire was probably caused by human involvement due to the absence of supportive evidence for certain accidental causes.

This case can be used as a good example of how to effectively use NFPA 921 even in jurisdictions where a court has not deemed NFPA 921 the standard. It can still be argued that if NFPA 921 is utilized, then it has to be used for all of the principles it contains. In other words, an expert should not be allowed to adopt some NFPA 921 provisions and feel free to disregard others. It is also a good example of how to utilize negative corpus and its inconsistency with the scientific method to limit an origin and cause expert’s opinions.