Court admits the Long-Term, Low-Temperature Ignition of Wood theory of Fire Investigation Expert Witnesses in Product Liability Case

Court admits the Long-Term, Low-Temperature Ignition of Wood theory of Fire Investigation Expert Witnesses in Product Liability Case

The case arose from a fire at an apartment building in Potsdam, New York, allegedly caused by a defective attic exhaust/ventilation fan manufactured by Defendant, Broan Nutone LLC. Country Mutual, representing the Plaintiff, claimed the fan was defective in both manufacturing and design, citing New York law on strict product liability and identifying manufacturing and design defects.

The Court, citing Reynolds-Sitzer v. Eisai, Inc, 586 F. Supp. 3d 123 (N.D.N.Y. 2022), highlighted three recognized product defects under New York law: manufacturing, design, and warning defects. For a manufacturing defect claim, the Plaintiff needed to establish the defect’s existence at the product’s release, a causal link to the injury, and resulting damages. In the case of a design defect claim, the burden involved proving the product’s inherent danger, the feasibility of a safer design, and the defective design’s substantial role in causing the injury.

Country Mutual filed two motions in limine seeking to exclude certain expert testimonies from Broan’s experts, James Smolka and Dennis Scardino, which Broan countered with a motion in limine aimed at preventing Country Mutual from presenting or referencing other incidents involving exhaust fans as evidence.

Fire Investigation Expert Witnesses

James C. Smolka P.E., CFEI is a Senior Consultant for Engineering Systems Inc. (ESi). Mr. Smolka has over 20 years of experience in Electrical Engineering, particular in the field of Electrical Power Engineering and Instrumentation and Controls (I&C) Engineering. He is a certified fire and explosion investigator.

Dennis J. Scardino P.E., CFI, CFEI, CFII, CVFI is a Professional Engineer in Mechanical Engineering, with 35 years of fire/explosion analysis experience. He is a seasoned expert qualified in forensic failure analysis and fire origin and cause. With experience spanning State and Federal Courts across the Southeastern United States, he specialized in evaluating failure, fire, and explosion origins since 1981. His professional history involved aiding insurance companies, adjusting firms, law practices, various private and public entities, and individuals in assessing and addressing failure and fire-related incidents.

Discussion by the Court 

Country Mutual’s first motion sought to preclude Broan’s experts, James Smolka (“Smolka”) and Dennis Scardino (“Scardino”), from providing certain testimony at trial. Country Mutual contested the conclusion presented by Broan’s experts, James Smolka and Dennis Scardino, regarding the fire’s cause—a phenomenon termed Long-Term, Low-Temperature Ignition of Wood (LTLTIW). This phenomenon occurs when prolonged heat exposure causes wood to char, reducing its ignition temperature and potentially leading to self-ignition. Country Mutual sought to prevent these experts from testifying about LTLTIW, citing its alleged lack of scientific proof, unpredictability, and absence of testing, dubbing its application to the case as unreliable.

Broan countered by asserting that LTLTIW was a scientifically established phenomenon documented by fire investigators over several decades. They emphasized Scardino’s personal observations of LTLTIW in multiple instances during his lengthy tenure as a fire investigator. Broan maintained that Smolka and Scardino appropriately applied LTLTIW to the case’s specifics, concluding that this phenomenon caused the fire in question.

In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the Supreme Court set forth a list of factors, in addition to the criteria set forth in Rule 702, that bear on the determination of reliability. The factors outlined in Daubert include: whether a theory or technique has been or can be tested, “whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication,” the technique’s “known or potential rate of error” and “the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation,” and whether a particular technique or theory has gained general acceptance in the relevant scientific community. Importantly, the factors outlined in Daubert do not constitute a “definitive checklist or test.” Rather, the inquiry envisioned by Rule 702 is a flexible one, and the gatekeeping inquiry must be tied to the facts of a particular case.

The Court found that the opinions of James Smolka and Dennis Scardino were sufficiently reliable under Daubert after thoroughly reviewing their joint report and denied Country Mutual’s first motion in limine to exclude them from providing certain testimony at trial.

Country Mutual filed a second motion in limine to preclude the testimony of experts James Smolka and Dennis Scardino, seeking to prevent them from presenting overlapping or duplicative testimony. They argued that allowing such overlapping testimony could prejudice the jury by conveying that multiple experts had independently reached the same conclusion, potentially impacting the weight of their testimony. Additionally, Country Mutual contended that permitting cumulative testimony would unnecessarily consume the court’s and jury’s time.

In response, Broan countered that their expert disclosures delineated the specific areas in which Smolka and Scardino would testify. They highlighted that during the experts’ depositions, Country Mutual had the opportunity to clarify which opinions each expert would present at trial. Broan further argued that the determination of cumulative testimony should be made during the trial phase, rather than pretrial.

While expert testimony might be admissible, Federal Rule of Evidence 403 allows for its exclusion if its probative value is substantially outweighed by risks of unfair prejudice, confusion, misleading the jury, undue delay, wastefulness, or needlessly presenting redundant evidence.

Upon review, the Court ruled to restrict Smolka and Scardino from presenting overlapping testimony during the trial, allowing them to testify only on aspects where their testimonies did not duplicate each other. Consequently, the Court granted Plaintiff’s second motion in limine, permitting the experts to testify to the extent that their testimonies did not overlap or duplicate each other’s.

The Court granted Broan’s motion in limine, barring Country Mutual from presenting or referencing other incidents involving exhaust fans as evidence. This decision stemmed from Country Mutual’s failure to establish substantial similarity between the prior incidents and the present case. Specifically, Country Mutual could not demonstrate that the previous incidents involved the exhaust fan at issue in this case or a sufficiently comparable scenario to the one in question here. Therefore, the Court deemed the prior incidents inadmissible due to the lack of similarity.


The Court denied Plaintiff’s first motion in limine, having found Smolka and Scardino’s testimony sufficiently reliable as per the Daubert standards but barred them from presenting cumulative testimony by granting the Plaintiff’s second motion in limine. The Court also granted Defendant’s motion to preclude Plaintiff from referring to or offering into evidence other incidents involving exhaust fans.

Both the parties reached an settlement shortly after this ruling and the case was subsequently dismissed.

Key Takeaways:

The Court denied Country Mutual’s motion to preclude Broan’s experts, James Smolka and Dennis Scardino, from testifying about the phenomenon of Long-Term, Low-Temperature Ignition of Wood (LTLTIW). The Court found that based on a review of the experts’ joint report, their opinions regarding LTLTIW were sufficiently reliable to be admissible under Rule 702 and Daubert. However, the Court granted Country Mutual’s motion to preclude cumulative testimony from Smolka and Scardino. The experts will be permitted to testify but their testimony cannot be duplicative. This ruling was made under Rule 403, which allows Courts to exclude admissible expert testimony if its probative value is substantially outweighed by wasting time or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. Additionally, the Court precluded Country Mutual from introducing evidence or making any reference to prior incidents involving exhaust fans. The Court found that Country Mutual failed to demonstrate that any alleged prior incidents were substantially similar to the incident at issue involving the Broan exhaust fan. Therefore, evidence regarding other exhaust fan incidents was deemed irrelevant and inadmissible.