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TOYOTA WINS JURY DEFENSE VERDICT IN FIRE CLAIM
Defense Proves Lexus Did Not Start House Fire
DAYTON, OH - In a case best described as one where plaintiff’s experts leapt to conclusions and never did their homework, Toyota received a defense verdict from a jury in an Ohio court room on June 14, 2002.
Cincinnati Insurance Company sued Toyota for damages it incurred when a fire destroyed the home of John and Lee Shimer of Washington Township, OH. The value of the home and its contents were .7 million. Cincinnati contended the Shimer's 1996 Lexus LS400 started on fire while it sat parked in the home’s three-car garage. Cincinnati had an expert on scene the night of the fire and another within a few days thereafter, both of whom immediately fingered the Lexus as the cause.
While both sides agreed the fire started in the garage, as the defense showed – and the jury agreed – it clearly wasn’t the Lexus that caused it. Toyota took each claim, one by one, and asked the jury to apply simple science and engineering to prove Cincinnati Insurance’s hurried assumptions wrong.
Initially, Cincinnati Insurance expert Richard Kovarsky, an electrical engineer, testified a wire at the front of the vehicle, just behind the grill, shorted and ignited the car. Later, Kovarsky learned the wire had no power to it, so it could not short. At trial, attempting to explain how an unpowered wire could spark, he ultimately said there had been multiple malfunctions in the Lexus which allowed power to flow to the wire so it could short. However, defense expert Ray Reske, an engineer with over 25 years experience with vehicles and fires, took the wiring harness from a 1996 Lexus LS400, traced each of the wires, fuses and connectors with the jury and explained how each worked and when each was powered. Reske showed the jury that ten separate malfunctions would need to occur in order for the wire to short and cause a fire.
Another Cincinnati expert, C.R. "Bud" Spitler, a Dayton, OH fire origin and cause investigator, claimed the initial fuel for the fire was gasoline vapor which escaped from a defective tank in the vehicle’s emission control system. The defect, he explained, was that the tank should have confined the gasoline vapor – he opined, the tank failed when it allowed vapors to get out of the tank. On cross-examination when shown an exemplar tank, Spitler acknowledged that prior to that moment he was unaware the vapor tank was purposely equipped with a hole designed to allow heavier-than-air gasoline vapors to harmlessly vent beneath the vehicle, away from any alleged ignition sources.
Toyota explained the physical evidence showed the fire was not caused by the Lexus. Rather, the fire started in front of the Lexus along the east wall of the garage which showed a classic pattern in the shape of a "V". Fire origin and cause science says look for the V and at the bottom you will find the fire’s cause. The "V" pointed to the ground about four feet in front of the Lexus, where there had been an electric toy. In their haste, Cincinnati’s experts overlooked the toy, and it was discarded before Toyota had an opportunity to examine it. So Toyota could not show the jury the actual cause of the fire.
Instead, Toyota’s experts relied on the available physical evidence to prove the Lexus did not start the fire. Lexus expert John Maurus detailed the fire patterns on the Lexus LS400. They showed the car had been attacked by fire in the front. Maurus explained by looking at the increasing level of damage from the front bumper back, the fire pattern indicated the fire attacked the Lexus from an external source.
Ultimately, Toyota demonstrated that Cincinnati Insurance and its experts leapt to a flawed theory before thoroughly investigating the scene or the Lexus. In the end, the trial was best capsulized by two remarks by the plaintiff’s attorney. In his opening he said, "Plaintiff’s fire origin and cause expert says the fire started at the Lexus, and he is the expert's expert." In his closing he suggested, "I agree if the case was about experts you should rule for Lexus, but this case isn't about experts."
Attorneys for the defense were David W. Graves, Jr. and C. Paul Carver of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis, MN, and Doug Rennie of Montgomery, Rennie & Johnson in Cincinnati, Ohio. Toyota experts included John Maurus, Ray Reske, and Eric Jackson.
Attorney for the plaintiff was Robert J. Janes, Cincinnati Insurance of Dayton, Ohio.
Shimer v. Toyota, Case No.: 1999 CV 4361
(consolidated with Case No. 1999 CV 4375)
Judge John D. Martin
Common Pleas Court of Montgomery County, Dayton, Ohio