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Court upholds insurer's expert's testimony underlying verdict against homeowner

Terrance Barr sued Farm Bureau to collect on the fire insurance he purchased for the home he lived in.  Barr is one of many Genessee County's unemployed citizens, and his  home burned while it was in the process of foreclosure.  He and his girlfriend and another friend escaped the fire but he could not collect his insurance proceeds because Farm Bureau decided he had a "guilty connection" to the fire.

The State Police investigated and could not find evidence of accelerants.  They did not charge anyone with arson.  Nevertheless, Farm Bureau hired its own investigator,  who couldn't conduct a complete investigation.  Despite the lack of accelerants in the samples taken by fire authorities, this man testified that he believed the fire was arson resulting from the use of accelerants. Barr's attorneys attempted to exclude his evidence on the grounds that he did not follow the methodology in NFPA 921 and therefore his scientific opinion was not admissible under MCL 600.2955(1).

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision that Farm Bureau expert's testimony was admissible, despite the fact that his opinion contradicted the Fire Marshall's failure to find evidence of the use of accelerants.  It concluded that he adequately explained why his methodology diverged from the recommendations  of the National Fire Protection Association's standards. 

Two principles can be deduced from this outcome:  the first  is that courts will almost never overturn a jury verdict.  Verdicts only get over-turned when a jury has awarded an injury victim more money than the reviewing court can stomach.  The second principle this outcome demonstrates, is the practical impact of the "scientific" limitation on expert testimony.  If an interested person researches the statute and compiles the result of cases applying it, he or she will discover that it is only used to exclude injury victims' expert testimony.  By our count, it has never been drawn upon to limit insurer's or defendant doctor's expert testimony, regardless of the inadequacy of the methodology alleged.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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