The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a veteran firefighter, licensed master electrician, and forensic expert were qualified to give expert testimony about a Pennsylvania shopping center fire.
On December 17, 2012, a fire broke out at Natrona Heights Shopping Plaza in Harrison, Pennsylvania. The fire began at around 9:40 pm and destroyed or damaged twelve businesses. It took almost 300 volunteer firefighters from thirty companies to contain the damage.
James Tanda, the agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, estimated that the fire caused “in excess of $10 million” in damages.
The Natrona Heights Shopping Plaza was insured by Seneca Insurance Company, and Seneca paid for the losses resulting from the fire. An investigation revealed that Mark Beal and his company, Mark’s Maintenance and Repair, may have caused the fire when removing a neon sign from the facade of the building. Seneca sued Beal for damages.
At trial, Seneca retained three experts to testify on its behalf. The experts were Dennis Brew, an expert in installing and removing neon signs; Gerald Kufta, a private investigator specializing in fires; and Samuel Sero, a forensic engineer. Beal retained Ralph Dolence, a firefighter, fire officer, licensed master electrician, and forensic expert.
Seneca Insurance requested that the Beal’s expert, Ralph Dolence, be disqualified, arguing that his testimony was “speculative and lacked foundation.” The district court denied the motion.
A jury found Beal negligent in removing the sign, but that his acts or omissions did not cause the fire. Seneca filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a motion for a new trial. The district court denied the motion. Seneca appealed.
On appeal, Seneca argued that the district court erred by allowing Ralph Dolence to testify as an expert. The Third Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision for an abuse of discretion.
In the Third Circuit, an expert’s testimony is admissible if their “methodology and reasoning are sufficiently reliable to allow the fact finder to consider the expert’s opinion.” The Third Circuit determined that Dolence was qualified as an expert witness “because of his knowledge from years of professional experience, which included over 30 years as a fire investigator and 40 years as a licensed electrician. At the time of his testimony, Dolence, a qualified forensic expert in 30 states, had served on arson task forces, investigated over 12,000 fires, and taught hundreds of classes on fire causes and origin investigations.”
The court additionally noted that Dolence’s testimony was “based on, among other things, his personal observations and review of materials from the fire investigation. The foundation of his opinion was an examination of several hundred photographs, videos, and other documentation provided by the township, fire marshal, and individuals who were at the scene of the fire. He also analyzed depositions, documents, and reports provided by appellant’s experts and attended a joint evidence examination with Gerald Kufta and several other experts.”
The court determined that Dolence “ultimately testified that the cause of the fire was ‘undetermined’ because the fire investigation was improper and other causes were not ruled out.” The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s verdict.