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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:John Knapp’s home caught on fire while it was undergoing significant renovations. The fire originated in a hole in a large bathroom that was being converted into two smaller bathrooms. The lead investigator with the Houston Fire Department’s Arson Bureau, Mike Zigal, could not identify any accidental cause of the fire, so they classified the fire in “catchall,” or default option, of arson, and the investigation remained open. Chubb Lloyds Insurance Co. insured Knapp’s house. Chubb’s investigator, Mike Southerland, investigated the scene the next day. He concluded the fire could have started from one of three possible accidental causes: 1. a “drop light”; 2. a plumbing torch; or 3. a discarded cigarette. All three causes were related to H.C.B. Mechanical, a plumbing subcontractor on the renovation project. All of Southerland’s conclusions were dependent on the theory that there was debris in the hole that was ignited by one of the above causes. Chubb paid Knapp on the claim, then brought a subrogation suit against H.C.B. At trial, Southerland testified about his three theories of the fire’s cause. He could not explain why debris in the hold had not burned up. Furthermore, neither Southerland nor anyone else could explain why a half-full can of gasoline was found undisturbed on the premises. A jury awarded $40,000 to Chubb, finding H.C.B. negligent in starting the fire. HOLDING:Reversed and rendered. The court first reviews Southerland’s theory that the fire started through the use of a plumbing torch, noting that this theory also depended on the presence of a substance called “yocum,” used to prevent hot lead from leaking on pipes being worked on. The court spells out Southerland’s full theory on how the yocum and the plumbing torch would have caused the fire, noting that this was just one of three “possible scenarios.” The court says Southerland’s theory about the plumber’s torch “can only be classified as guesswork.” Under the theory, an event occurred sometime around 2 p.m., when the yocum and the torch led to the fire, which was reported at 8:42 p.m. “We cannot uphold a finding of negligence under the plumbing torch theory because there are simply too many inferences upon inferences that must be stacked to reach the causation element.” The court finds that Southerland’s theory about the fire being caused by a smoldering cigarette “also collapses under the weight of the multiple inferences that must be stacked.” There is no evidence that an H.C.B. employee carelessly or accidentally discarded a cigarette at the site or near the hole. The court then examines the drop light theory. The court finds this theory suffers from the same “fatal flaw,” because it is premised on “complete conjecture,” coupled with a total lack of personal knowledge on Southerland’s part. The court also finds that Chubb did not prove its alternate theory that H.C.B. was negligent in not securing the door to Knapp’s house, thereby allowing someone to walk in and start the fire. Neither the fire department’s Arson Bureau, nor anything else in the record, corroborates the probability of arson. OPINION:Nuchia, J.; Nuchia, Jennings and Higley, JJ.

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