First a house fire killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three tiny daughters. Then the state of Texas killed him. Mistakes were made, notes the Washington Post. The forensics testimony on accelerants has long since been discredited, and now the jailhouse informant whose words sent Willingham to execution, who has wavered between recanting and not-recanting, has given a recantation with much more circumstantial detail about the lies he says he told on the stand.
Here’s a Texas Monthly article (linked a while back) on the unsettling history of arson forensics over many years, in which the use of accelerants was deduced from dubious evidence in such a way as to shift many fires from the “likely accidental” to the “deliberate” category, with dire legal consequences for family members and others on the scene. Earlier on the Willingham case, including pro-prosecution links, from five years ago. More: Jonathan Adler.
Following the rules wherever they lead? The newly installed alarms did promptly catch a guest smoking in a cleaning closet. [Independent]
The other day the Chicago Tribune documented a longstanding campaign (see Friday link) to get government bodies to adopt standards requiring flameproofing of furniture upholstery, carpets and other household materials. Turns out key actors in that campaign were companies that make the chemicals used in flameproofing, which thereby guaranteed themselves a giant market for their products, as well as cigarette companies that worried that they would face regulatory and legal pressure over fires caused by careless smoking and decided to pursue a strategy of turning the issue into someone else’s problem.
Unfortunately, according to the Tribune series, the supposedly flameproof furnishings 1) aren’t necessarily very good at reducing fire risk and 2) are doused with chemicals that one might not want rubbing off on one’s family and pets. That’s aside from the regulations’ obvious cost in making furnishings more expensive and narrowing consumer choice by excluding producers unable or unwilling to use the chemical treatments. Whether or not you accept the series’ interpretation in all respects — the authors tend to taken an alarmist line, for example, on the chemicals’ environmental dangers — it’s useful as reminder #83,951 that government regulation often is driven by motives quite different from those advertised, and in particular by business lobbies whose interest is frequently squarely opposed to laissez-faire.
On Sunday, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, criticized lately in this space for his views on supposed Big Beer responsibility for Indian reservation alcoholism, addressed the flameproofing story in his column. After reciting the controversy — laying a particular emphasis on chemical alarmism, long a specialty of his — Kristof concludes as follows:
This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.
Which affords James Taranto of the WSJ’s “Best of the Web” this response:
The guy is so blinded by ideology that he fails to notice he has just given an example of burdensome government regulation.
“Philip Morris Not Liable for Fire Started By Cigarette” That title says it all, except for the part about it taking eight years for the defense to win a summary judgment. [Nick Farr, Abnormal Use]
The Texas Supreme Court applies skepticism to the theories of a plaintiff’s expert witness in a suit against Wal-Mart. [Wajert; Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Merrell, No. 09-0224 (Tex. 6/18/10), PDF]
The government is playing more of a role these days in designing your next house. I’ve got some thoughts up at Cato at Liberty on the politics of it all.
Decedent, Lloyd A. Wiseman, a vice president of a San Francisco bank, died of asphyxiation and burns in a hotel room in New York City. He was in that city on bank business, and his traveling expenses, including his hotel bills, were paid by the bank. A woman, not his wife but registered as such, was found unconscious in his room and died shortly thereafter. There was evidence that they had been drinking. Sometime between 4 and 5 in the morning of his death, Wiseman telephoned the hotel manager for help because of a fire in his room. After calling the fire department, the manager went to the room but was unable to open the door with his passkey. Firemen arrived shortly thereafter and broke into the room but were too late to save the occupants. It was the opinion of the assistant fire marshal that the fire was caused by careless smoking by either one or both of the occupants.
The California Supreme Court went on to hold that Wiseman’s widow and children were entitled to death benefits from his employer because his death “was proximately caused by the employment”—a remarkable definition of proximate cause. The Court reasoned that Wiseman might have died while entertaining a legitimate guest in the hotel room (at 4 in the morning?), so the fact that the death occurred in the course of nookie was irrelevant. That seems to me to prove too much: Wiseman might have died smoking in his bed at home, too, and he just happened to be in a hotel when his bad habits killed him. But this was part of Judge Traynor’s successful remaking of tort law in the 1950′s, and the death of proximate cause is a large part why we have the mess we have today. Wiseman v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1956) 46 Cal. 2d 570.
(You can tell that this is still over fifty years ago, though, because the widow didn’t sue the hotel or cigarette company.)
Nine firefighters died in a blaze at a Charleston, S.C., furniture store in 2007. Now four other firefighters who were on the scene that night, along with two of their wives, have filed a lawsuit claiming emotional distress and depression. They have chosen to sue “the Sofa Super Store, its owners and several furniture manufacturers,” the latter on the theory that their wares should have been made of less combustible materials. [Charleston City Paper, with links to complaints, via Sheila Scheuerman, TortsProf] On the erosion of the old “firefighters’ rule” which prevented rescuers from suing over injuries sustained in the course of their rescues, see our tag on the subject. On the development of lawsuits attributing liability after fires to whole groups of makers of furniture and other furnishings on the ground that they furnished fuel for the conflagration, see this retrospective (scroll) on the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, and, relatedly, our posts on the “Great White” Rhode Island concert fire.
Dismissing a suit claiming that cigarettes and upholstery should have been flameproof, a Kentucky federal judge last month had this to say:
No court has found that there is a duty to make our world fool-proof or risk free. Nor is there a duty to warn of obvious consequences of foolish behavior.
In this case, we will reject the opportunity to hold that just because something could happen, failure to prevent it is unreasonable….
Nothing this court can do will change what happened. But we are obliged to ensure that the law is applied dispassionately, and in a principled way.
[Patrick at Popehat]
“An insurance company with a potential $25 million liability from a fatal 2007 Houston office fire announced [Jan. 21] that it will drop its legal argument” that it shouldn’t have to pay for smoke inhalation deaths because they supposedly resulted from “pollution”, a risk excluded under the policy, as opposed to the actual flames. [Houston Chronicle; earlier].
“An insurance company with a potential $25 million liability from a 2007 Houston office fire is claiming smoke that killed three people was ‘pollution’ and surviving families shouldn’t be compensated for their losses since the deaths were not caused directly by the actual flames. Great American Insurance Company is arguing in a Houston federal court that the section of the insurance policy that excludes payments for pollution — like discharges or seepage that require cleanup — would also exclude payouts for damages, including deaths, caused by smoke, or pollution, that results from a fire.” (Mary Flood, “Insurance loophole claimed in fire deaths”, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 17).
The state of Rhode Island and town of West Warwick, the last major defendants left in the lawsuits over the Station/Great White fire, agreed to throw $10 million apiece into the settlement pot, which now reaches $175 million, to compensate the 200 injured and survivors of the 100 killed in the 2003 blaze. The town of West Warwick, population just under 30,000, is expected to have to borrow heavily to enable its payment; it has a $4 million insurance policy, but defense litigation costs will be deducted before any of that money is made available for the settlement (RedOrbit/ProJo, more, AP/Firefighting News via Childs).
Dozens of private companies named in the suits had settled earlier, including many with peripheral or remote connections to the calamity, such as beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch, which together with a beer distributor agreed to pay $21 million, and radio operator Clear Channel, which paid $22 million. West Warwick will wind up paying much less than that, although its negligent contribution to the disaster (in failing to enforce key provisions of its own fire code) would appear immeasurably greater. Earlier posts here.
Sealed Air makes polyethylene foam for packaging material. The Great White plaintiffs allege that polyethylene foam in the soundproofing was part of the reason the Rhode Island Station nightclub fire spread so fast, killing 100–though they have no evidence that Sealed Air manufactured the foam in the club, not to mention the fact that the packing foam was never intended to be used as building material. Not to worry: with joint and several liability in Rhode Island, Sealed Air faced billions of dollars of potential liability because all of the other deep pockets (dozens of defendants ranging from a radio station to four other foam manufacturers to Anheuser-Busch to the bus that transported the band to the concert to a television station that covered the fire) have settled, Sealed Air couldn’t risk being held even 1% liable, especially given that at a trial plaintiffs would have no incentive to blame empty-chair or empty-pocket or settling defendants. Sealed Air will pay $25 million in protection money. (AP; Providence Journal; TortsProf). The miscarriage of justice continues, but the remaining defendants are apparently judgment-proof.
Innocent bystanders have paid the bulk of settlements to date in the catastrophic fire caused by Great White’s pyrotechnic display that killed 100 people at The Station nightclub in Providence, Rhode Island. The latest victims are a television station, WPRI, and a cameraman who will contribute $30 million to a settlement fund: WPRI’s Brian Butler is accused of impeding the crowd’s exit through the front door, though Butler’s contemporaneous account suggests that he probably saved some lives at the time. “Dozens of defendants remain, including … Anheuser-Busch Inc., which sold beer at the concert; and Clear Channel Communications, which owns a Providence radio station which ran advertisements promoting the show.” (Andrea Estes, “Tentative deal set in R.I. fire case”, Boston Globe, Feb. 2; “Tentative $30 Million Settlement in Club Fire”, AP/NY Times, Feb. 2). Earlier: Feb. 2006 and Nov. 2 (Home Depot pays $5M for failure to warn, though their foam is different than the foam that caught on fire).