When a Cooking Facility is destroyed by fire, how do you prove who is to blame?

When a building is destroyed by fire, how do you prove who is to blame?

A number of recent cases illustrate the exacting standard applied by the court to questions of competing-causes in fire claims.

Where, who and how

The most recent case is United Marine Aggregates Ltd v GM Welding & Engineering Ltd, which shows that working out where the fire started – or who started it – may not be enough.

If you are to succeed in court, you also need to know how it started.

In United Marine, the claimant’s processing plant was badly damaged by fire.

The claimant and the defendant had both carried out ‘hot works’ in separate parts of the building shortly before the fire broke out.

Therefore the first task of the judge (Edwards-Stuart J) was to work out where, roughly, the fire had started. In other words, which party’s hot works caused the fire.

After hearing expert evidence from three fire experts, the judge decided that the fire had been caused by the defendant’s oxy-propane cutting works.

The investigation did not end there, however.

The claimant had to show that the fire was caused by the defendant’s negligence, and this meant showing exactly how the fire was caused.

Edwards-Stuart J identified eight possible mechanisms, depending on the various directions a globule of molten steel might travel.

Having identified which, on the balance of chance, was the real method of ignition, the judge had to decide whether the defendant was liable.

Unsurprisingly, the claimant relied on the doctrine res ipsa loquitor: if the defendant had carried out its task with reasonable skill and care, the fire would surely not have occurred.

Edwards-Stuart J held that the maxim did not apply.

The claimant had to show that:

  • The defendant had not shown reasonable care.
  • The lack of reasonable care had caused the fire.

In fact, the precise mechanism of the fire starting was not reasonably foreseeable. The defendant was not negligent for failing to prevent it.

This judgment illustrates in stark terms the need for the court to be satisfied precisely how the fire occurred, and not simply where it started and when. In most cases this requires evidence from expert witnesses.

These will depend heavily on a site investigation, and any documentary and witness evidence that may be available.

What was the exact cause?

Unfortunately, proving the exact cause and mechanism of a fire is a common problem, particularly where the extent of the fire damage means that a number of potential competing causes.

In Amsprop v ITW Ltd, such as, much damage was caused to the Hard Rock Cafe on Piccadilly when a fire broke out in the kitchen.

The fire experts managed to agree that the fire started when grease in a flue vent above a cheese melter (known as a Salamander) caught fire.

The defendant engineering company had carried out a service and repair to the Salamander two days before the fire.

The question of liability turned on whether the fire was caused by a flame from the burner on the Salamander (in which case the defendant might be liable) or a flare up from food on the grill (in which case the defendant was not liable).

The claim failed. HHJ Toulmin CMG QC could not close, on the balance of chance, which of the two potential scenarios had actually occurred, and suggested it would be mere “speculation” to do otherwise (paragraph 105, judgment).

The Sherlock Holmes fallacy

In Amsprop, the court considered the application of the Sherlock Holmes fallacy, discussed by the House of Lords in Rhesa Shipping Co SA v Edmunds (The Popi M) [1985] 1 WLR 948.

The Sherlock Holmes fallacy is the doctrine that, when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable must be the truth.

In a legal context, if none of the options are established on the balance of probabilities, the claimant will not have proved its case.

In Fosse Motor Engineers Ltd v Conde Nast & National Magazine Distributors Ltd, such as, the claimant’s warehouse was destroyed in a fire.

Expert forensic engineering evidence could not find the cause of the fire. The court had to consider five possible causes of the fire, one of which was that the defendant’s agency staff had carelessly discarded a cigarette.

Akenhead J said that the “explanation is anything but ‘elementary’”, and the cause of the fire could not be proven on the balance of probabilities (paragraph 107, judgment). Accordingly the claim failed.

By contrast, in Milton Keynes Borough Council v Michael Nulty, Edwards-Stuart J held that there were only three possible causes of a real fire to a recycling center.

While none of them were inherently likely, two of the possible causes were “very much less likely” than the third. On that basis the third was the probable cause of the fire.

This was a decision that he could only reach after the expert evidence had concluded that there could only be three causes of the fire, and two of them were very much less likely.

In many fire cases, such an analysis will not be available, and the claimant may not succeed.

These cases all show the difficulties inherent in proving causation in fire cases where much of the evidence has been destroyed.

They serve as a reminder that there is no substitute to a detailed forensic report from an appropriately qualified fire investigation expert, and early compilation of all available evidence.

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Restaurants in Compliance to Hood Cleaning Laws

With all the new restaurants popping up in and around the city, who is enforcing the city’s restaurant codes, laws and keeping track of hood cleaning expiration dates of local restaurants that protect the public from tragedy occurring?

Who takes the responsibility if a grease fire occurs in a restaurant hood due to expired maintenance stickers and/or an overdue hood cleaning?

Would the city be on the hook?

Or would the liability fall on the fire department, the restaurant owner, the landlord or the insurance company?

The answer would be all the above unless the restaurant owner was properly notified and/or given a stop work order due to non compliance from an inspector or the local fire department.

With the economy being the way it is some restaurateurs tend to put off scheduled hood cleanings until they are forced to comply but by then it could be too late leaving an open door for tragedy to strike!

How to Protect Your Business From Hidden Fire Hazards in Your Hood and Duct System

Another day, another grease fire
A simple Google search for “restaurant + fire” quickly reveals news articles on more than 60 restaurant fires in the U.S. during the past month alone.

Take a closer look and you’ll see a definite pattern emerge regarding the cause of those fires — grease buildup. In fact, according to a recent report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), one in five fires at eating and drinking establishments had “failure to clean” listed as a contributing factor.

The NFPA study showed an average of nearly 8,000 reported fires and $246 million in property damage, with grease related fires costing restaurant owners an average of more than $50 million per year.

With statistics like these, it’s easy to see why grease vapor accumulation in hood systems and ductwork is one of the biggest hazards facing commercial kitchens today.

Costly repairs, loss of revenue, and the possibility of temporarily – or permanently – closing your establishment gives even the smallest fire the potential to be a business-ending catastrophe.

From $100,000 worth of damages at a Burger King in Boston, Massachusetts and more than $750,000 in damages at the El Pollo Rico chicken restaurant in Wheaton, Maryland, to a whopping $1 million in damages at the aptly named Flames café in San Jose, California, grease fires are shutting down restaurants of all kinds every single day.

Beware of hidden dangers lurking in your restaurant.
There’s no denying it.

If you don’t keep your kitchen exhaust system clean, you’re going to get burned.

When hood systems are not regularly cleaned, as much as three inches of grease can accumulate on the bottom of horizontal duct sections.

Improperly cleaned hoods supposed to help contain fires may instead accelerate them.

Jonathan Hart, a fire protection engineer with the NFPA explains, “When you have a dirty duct, that can act like a fuel.”

Some types of grease buildup can even cause fire-extinguishing systems to malfunction by plugging up their mechanisms.

According to the NFPA, this grease buildup is one of the primary causes of commercial kitchen fire-extinguishing system failure and only adds to the hazards of improperly cleaned hoods.

Even more often overlooked is rooftop grease. Grease vapor travels up through the exhaust system and solidifies onto the fan blades and housing, causing a buildup of grease that eventually runs onto the rooftop.

Without a rooftop grease containment system in place, not only does the grease buildup become added fuel for fires, it can cause significant and costly structural damage.

But the problem doesn’t stop there; the grease also becomes an environmental hazard when it runs off into the water drainage system, which can result in regulatory fines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Don’t fall into the grease trap!

When it comes to fires, a good offense is your best defense. Unfortunately, many busy restaurant operators have trouble finding time to schedule their kitchen exhaust cleaning.

But the worst thing you can do is to skip them. Be proactive and set up a cleaning and maintenance plan with a professional hood cleaning company that adheres to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.

Another very important part of protecting your establishment against grease related fires is ensuring that you select the right type of hood filters.

With so many variables, it’s easy to make mistakes like picking the wrong filter for the job.

Our Hood Filter Buying Guide takes the guesswork out of which filter to buy and answers common questions about ensuring the proper fit, correct installation, when to replace, and compliance requirements.

Keeping it clean.

Just how often do hood systems and filters need to be cleaned? That usually depends on the type of food prepared and the several hours your vents are in use per day.

Most hood filters do at their best with a daily or weekly cleaning and a professional cleaning of your entire exhaust system is recommended at least 2 – 3 times per year.

It’s important to remember that grease-laden filters are just as dangerous as dirty ductwork.

They can also increase your utility costs and affect your health inspection score. However, hood filter cleaning doesn’t have to be difficult.

You just need to make a regular cleaning routine, which will make them last longer and significantly cut your risk of fire.

This may come as a surprise, but good old-fashioned hand washing remains the most effective way to keep hood filters clean.

However, many food service operators find it easier to invest in a deep soak system like Hood Filter Soak Cart.

It holds as many as 6 filters for efficient cleaning that minimizes time and labor costs.

Restaurant owners looking for more information on fire safety best practices and requirements may find the National Fire Protection Association website a helpful resource.

There, you can find current information on “NFPA 96: Standard For Ventilation Control And Fire Protection Of Commercial Cooking Operations” as well as research, safety and training information.

Start reducing your risk right away.

There will always be a risk for fire in commercial kitchens, but following a few simple precautions, restaurant owners can easily lower that risk and safeguard their business.

Use approved hoods with grease-tight fittings; make sure you have the right hood filters and make sure they are cleaned on a regular schedule; use a rooftop grease containment system; and schedule routine cleaning and maintenance of your kitchen exhaust system to avoid excess grease accumulation.

Get certified NFPA 96 and don’t get sued by not doing the job correctly

 — It’s hard for a restaurant to survive its first year.

Being closed for 10 days because of a fire during that time makes it even tougher. But harder still would be a second year with a second fire that causes an eight-month closing and a negligence lawsuit that includes seven other defendants.

This is what Gray Brooks, co-owner of Pizzeria Toro in Durham, has been facing.

“It makes me sad because it pulls me so far from what I do, what we do,” said Brooks, 46, who co-owns the pizza place with his wife, Cara Stacy, and business partner Jay Owens. “We just want to have a great restaurant.”

The owners hope to reopen Toro by Saturday and get back to making pizzas baked to a chewy crisp by three zones of heat in a wood-fire oven.

At the heart of Toro’s fire troubles was the pizza oven’s chimney duct. The exhaust duct snaked up above the restaurant and behind the condominium walls of the building’s second story. The channel made seven, 90-degree turns before reaching the roof. The partners opened Pizzeria Toro in October 2012 in a historic renovated building near Durham’s Five Points intersection in downtown.

On April 13, 2013, firefighters responded to a report of heavy smoke coming from the roof of the building, which includes three second-story condos. Fire officials extinguished a small fire on the roof that was dripping from the pizza oven’s duct, according to a Durham Fire Department report.

Toro made repairs and re-opened about 10 days later.

A second fire

On Nov. 4, 2013, firefighters responded to another flare at the building, about four hours after the restaurant’s oven fire was extinguished. That fire, which ruined one apartment and damaged two others, was again contained within the upper-level duct.

The fire displaced five residents from six weeks to six months, according to a Dec. 6, 2013, letter sent to Gene Bradham, the director of Durham’s Inspections Department, by Thomas Galloway, one of the condos’ tenants. The letter asks the city to not allow Toro to operate a wood-burning oven. Galloway declined to comment on the record for this story.

In that letter, some of Galloway’s concerns, which centered on residents’ safety and the chimney’s design and monthly cleaning, were echoed by his then-neighbor, Jason Couch, in a lawsuit filed Jan. 15 in Durham County Superior Court. The lawsuit contends Pizzeria Toro and ExhaustCLEAN, the Morrisville company contracted to clean the chimney duct, were jointly negligent and should pay actual and punitive damages.

The buildup of ash and tar materials in the chimney demonstrates that it “had not been cleaned for a long period of time” before the second fire, the lawsuit states.

Brooks said the chimney was cleaned every month, including 20 days before the fire.

Pizzeria Toro responded to the complaint on March 24 and added six third-party defendants: Lee Street Construction in Durham, Toro’s initial and post-fire general contractor; Atlantec Engineers in Raleigh, which engineered the duct; Center Studio Architecture in Durham, which designed the duct; Hay’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Hillsborough, which constructed the duct; Double C Ranch & Welding in Coats, which welded the duct; and CaptiveAire in Raleigh, which performed repair work on the duct.

Toro’s counter-claim is part of the legal dance of liability after a fire that is costing its insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars, Brooks and others said.

In cases such as Toro’s, it’s “fairly common” for a company’s attorney to sue everyone connected to the project, said David Whitney, president of Atlantec. The move encourages having those parties discuss a settlement instead of dealing with a costly and complex court case.

“I don’t necessarily think that’s the right way to do things, but that is the way it is,” Whitney said.

Atlantec’s liability insurance costs increased by more than 10 percent as a result of the lawsuit, Whitney said, which was filed just before the company’s annual insurance renewal.

Andrew Philipps, president of Lee Street Construction, which is working on Toro’s post-fire construction, said it isn’t really about Toro’s owners suing him.

“It’s really about insurance companies suing each other,” Philipps said. Lee Street Construction is also the general contractor for a downtown renovation project for McClatchy Interactive, which is owned by the same company as The News & Observer.

John Szymankiewicz, a Raleigh attorney who isn’t connected to the Toro case, said, in general, it’s impossible for small businesses to avoid being named in a lawsuit, but owners can protect themselves by working with an insurance agent that will identify their company’s unique risks.

Contracts for products and services should include language in which the service provider guarantees and indemnified the work for a specific period of time.

Creating guidelines

In addition to the lawsuit, Toro owners have faced a permitting process slowed down by Durham officials’ research into guidelines for wood-fire ovens.

Several jurisdictions have contacted the N.C. Department of Insurance’s Office of State Fire Marshal in the past six months with requests for technical assistance with wood-fire ovens, wrote Richard Strickland, chief fire code consultant for the N.C. Department of Insurance, in an email response to a reporter’s questions.

If specific language isn’t outlined in the state fire code, cities can turn to a nationally recognized standard, such as guidelines set out by the National Fire Protection Association, said Tom Darling, Durham’s fire plans examiner.

The new city guidelines required Toro to add a fire suppression system with wet chemicals and nozzles aimed at the pizza oven. However, that system wouldn’t have prevented Toro’s fires, Brooks said.

The reconstructed chimney flue has been reduced to two 90 degree turns and will be cleaned every 15 days, Brooks said.

After the second fire, Toro’s owners felt more than heartbroken, Brooks said.

The business was fully insured and the staff would continue to get paid, but “everything just felt heavy and sad,” Brooks said.

Brooks is looking forward to getting back to work, but said he is still grappling with exactly how the business ended up in this position. The owners interviewed multiple companies to design, clean and repair the chimney, Brooks said, and they trusted the ones they hired.

“Tell me what was the one thing we were supposed to that we didn’t do,” Brooks said. “That is the question that doesn’t have an answer.”


kitchen which spread to the roof ducting.

FIREFIGHTERS are due to leave Dukes 92 following a fire in the kitchen earlier today (Thursday, July 17).

Crews were called to the bar and restaurant in Castlefield, Manchester, at 11.25am after reports of the blaze.

The fire started accidentally and involved the chip range cooker in the kitchen which spread to the roof ducting.

Firefighters in breathing apparatus quickly brought the fire under control and managed to stop it spreading into the main bar and restaurant.

They used two jets, a hose reel and a foam extinguisher to tackle the fire and the aerial appliance was used to fight the fire from above.

Thermal imaging cameras were then used to check for further signs of fire spread and pockets of fire in the roof.

Firefighters from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service’s (GMFRS) Technical Response Unit were called because they have specialist training to work at height and extra cutting equipment on their fire engine.

Resources are now being scaled down and GMFRS is expected to leave the scene in the next hour.

Station Manager Phil Nelson, who was in charge of the incident, said: “Firefighters worked really hard to stop the fire spreading to the whole of the roof and the bar and restaurant.

“The damage was contained to the kitchen and roof with slight smoke damage to the other areas but we have been working with the owners to help them get back up and running as soon as possible and they hope to have the bar and barbecue open this evening.

“The owners are really pleased with the work we’ve done.”

A number of people were evacuated but there were no injuries.


Updated at 1.15pm

AROUND 20 firefighters are tackling a fire involving the kitchen of Dukes 92 in Castlefield, Manchester.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) received a call at 11.25am on Thursday, July 17, to reports of a fire involving the chip pan range.

The fire spread into the roof space but firefighters quickly brought the fire under control and managed to stop it spreading into the main bar and restaurant.

Four fire engines are currently at the scene along with an aerial appliance which is being used to fight the fire from above.

Station Manager Phil Nelson, who is in charge of the incident, said: “We are dealing with a fire involving the kitchen at Dukes 92 which has spread to the roof through the ducting.

“Crews have worked really hard to stop it spreading to the remainder of the roof and the bar and restaurant area.

“The fire is under control and we are now working on the roof to isolate any remaining pockets of fire.

“A number of people were evacuated before we arrived including the staff and we are working with the owners to look at business continuity going forward.”

Fire destroys restaurant in Southern Pines

Fire destroyed a restaurant in downtown Southern Pines early Wednesday, Aberdeen Fire Department officials said. (Photo by Frank Staples)Fire destroyed a restaurant in downtown Southern Pines early Wednesday, Aberdeen Fire Department officials said.

Crews responded to Artisan Wood Fired Pizza, at 127 West Pennsylvania Avenue, at about 3 a.m. The first was brought under control quickly, officials said, but it completely destroyed the interior of the restaurant, according to The Aberdeen Times.

No one was injured in the incident, and officials said it was unclear what started the blaze. No other information has been released.
Read more at http://www.wral.com/fire-destroys-restaurant-in-southern-pines/13815472/#DqUE4bH2xdx8M4Hy.99