The term spontaneous combustion can often be found in late-night, beer-fueled conversations and MythBusters marathons. Despite the accepted science that yes, such a phenomenon does take place — although perhaps not in human beings — it’s commonly relegated to falling in the same breath as a snicker or goofy rhetorical question.
For Peter Restani however, spontaneous combustion is no laughing matter. It may very well have been the thing that exonerated the Miami lawyer’s client, refrigerator manufacturer Turbo Air, from having to pay out $2.25 million in a fire loss.
“It’s a known scientific occurrence but is rare,” Restani told the Daily Business Review. The Boyd Richards Parker & Colonnelli partner said the theory was presented by an origin-of-fire expert, explaining how the blaze broke out at Fort Lauderdale eatery Dapur Asian Tapas Restaurant and Lounge on Nov. 24, 2015. In addition to forcing the restaurant to close its doors, the fire also damaged the shopping center the restaurant was situated in as well as a neighboring building.
The spontaneous combustion hypothesis was not shared by the restaurant’s insurers, Aspen Specialty Insurance Co. The insurance provider — along with General Star Indemnity Co. and Nationwide Insurance Co., who insured the building in which Dapur was located and the nearby property respectively — filed a negligence lawsuit against Turbo Air in December 2016. The complaint alleged that a defective commercial freezer manufactured by the refrigeration company and used by Dapur was to blame for the fire.
Read the complaint:
According to Restani, the plaintiffs were seeking to the obtain the collective $2.25 million in adjusted claims paid out to their insureds from Turbo Air.
“The amount wasn’t litigated, they just agreed to it. There were a lot of individual itemized losses, pieces of furniture and so forth,” he said.
The insurance carriers and their counsel argued that the Turbo Air freezer used by Dapur experienced an electrical failure that in turn triggered the fire.
“Most of the fire was in the kitchen but there was smoke damage elsewhere,” Restani said. “The sequence of events they alleged was that this was a failure of one of the capacitors on the top of the freezer.” The plaintiffs contended that this caused the freezer to overheat and was the place of the fire’s origin. Additionally, they insisted the pattern of the ensuing burn and smoke damage emanated from the freezer’s location and into the surrounding kitchen and restaurant, further reinforcing their argument.
Although both parties called upon the testimony of an electrical engineer and origin of fire specialist as expert witnesses, the findings articulated by the defendant’s ultimately won out.
“A microscopic analysis of the [wiring of the freezer] did not show high heat,” Restani said, noting that this precluded one of the freezer’s capacitors as the source of the fire.
“Our origin of fire expert disagreed that the patterns emanated outward from the turbo freezer,” he added. Restani and his expert pointed out that the kitchen contained a motion-activated security camera that had been recording during the fire in question.
“One of the things you could see was a washer-dryer [employees] would use for linens,” he said. “When the fire started, enough smoke developed to trigger the motion camera. When that happened you could see a round, orange glow from the same location from where you formerly saw the dryer.”
After the remnants of the dryer were sent out to a lab, it was found to have contained “volatile oils and animal fats” as well as “linens and napkins.”
“The conclusion of our fire origin expert was that dryer was left on, these linens and combustibles were left in it, and a spontaneous combustion occurred,” Restani said, attributing the orange glow captured on security footage to the oxidization within the dryer.
“We had one exhibit that showed the lighted kitchen versus the darkened kitchen to compare where the dryer was before and after the fire,” Restani said when asked about the entry of particularly compelling evidence in his client’s favor.
View the exhibit:
Ultimately, Restani attributed the verdict to a matter of simple science.
“What we had to do was teach all of this science to the jury so once they understood the concepts then they could logically reason out the case,” he said. “Once you wrap your head around the science, it’s not that bad.”
Neither Mark C. Cavanaugh nor Amy C. Wright, the respective attorneys for Aspen Specialty Insurance Co. and General Star Indemnity Co., responded to requests for comment by press time. Nationwide Insurance Co.’s counsel Trenton Leigh, who is based out of the Tampa office of statewide law firm Groelle & Salmon, also did not reply.
Case: Aspen Specialty Insurance Co. v. Turbo Air Inc.
Nationwide Insurance Co. v. Turbo Air Inc.
General Star Indemnity Co. v. Turbo Air Inc.
Case No.: 16-62694-CIV-DIMITROULEAS
Filing date: Dec. 15, 2016
Verdict date: May 23, 2018
Judge: U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas
Plaintiffs attorneys: Peter R. Restani and Robert E. Menje, Boyd Richards Parker Colonnelli, Miami
Defense attorneys: Mark C. Cavanaugh, Dugan, Brinkmann, Maginnis and Pace, Philadelphia (for Aspen Specialty Insurance Co.); Trenton Leigh, Groelle & Salmon, Tampa (for Nationwide Insurance Co.); and Amy C. Wright, Munck Wilson Mandala, Dallas (for General Star Indemnity Co.)
Verdict amount: Defense verdict