FEDERAL COURT STRIKES EXPERT TESTIMONY, DISMISSES CLAIMS FOR PHANTOM WILDFIRE DAMAGE
A Federal District Court Judge in Fort Worth recently granted summary judgment for State Farm Lloyds in a suit alleging smoke/soot damage resulting from the 2011 wildfires in north Texas. In Allen v. State Farm Lloyds, No. 4:12-CV-614-Y (N.D. Tex. Mar. 10, 2014), the court struck the homeowners’ expert testimony, and in the absence of any other evidence supporting their claims, granted summary judgment for State Farm. The homeowners alleged extensive smoke, soot, and ash damage to the exterior and interior of their home resulting from the 2011 wildfires, and submitted $145,000 in claimed repair costs. State Farm hired two companies to prepare independent comparative estimates to repair the home. Neither found any evidence of smoke, soot or ash. The only damage State Farm adjusters or consultants identified was water damage caused when the power went off and the freezer defrosted.
The homeowners relied solely on their public adjuster, Sonny Spoon of Insurance Busters, who testified he took samples from three locations inside the house which showed soot inside the house. He did not have any of the samples tested, and admitted that they could have also collected ordinary dust and dirt. He also claimed the metal roof required full replacement due to alleged char marks and soot stains which had chemically compromised the roof’s finish. However, he could not produce any photographic evidence of the marks, nor could he cite to any studies supporting his claims of chemical compromise.
State Farm challenged both Spoon’s qualifications and the reliability of his testimony. Although the court noted that that Spoon’s only formal education was a G.E.D., and strongly suggested it was not inclined to agree he was qualified to give expert testimony on smoke/soot damage, it chose to strike his testimony on reliability grounds instead. Because the homeowners had no other evidence supporting their alleged repair costs, the court then granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm on all claims, including contractual and extra-contractual claims.