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Couple Deserve Damages for Whirlpool Fridge Fire

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Whirlpool is liable after one of its refrigerators caused a fire that destroyed a southern Missouri couple's home, the 8th Circuit ruled.

Randy and Antoinette Russell's home in Iberia, Mo., 140 miles southwest of St. Louis, was destroyed by a fire on Feb. 6, 2010.

Firefighters on the scene did not call the State Fire Marshall to investigate the fire's origin because of the extent of damage to the house, which was considered a total burn because most combustibles were consumed in the fire and the fire eventually self-extinguished.

The Russells hired Larry Giggy, a certified fire investigator, to determine the fire's cause. Giggy attributed the fire to the Russells' Whirlpool refrigerator based on burn patterns on adjacent appliances and the amount of damage done to the refrigerator compared with the other appliances.

The Russells also hired Carl Martin, a professional engineer, to conduct an engineering analysis. Based on Giggy's conclusion that the refrigerator was the point of origin, Martin concluded that the refrigerator's compressor was not working and started the fire.

The Russells sued Whirlpool, and a federal jury in Springfield awarded them $1,377,550.

A three-judge appellate panel affirmed Monday, rejecting Whirlpool's claims that Giggy failed to use a sufficiently reliable methodology.

"As noted, Giggy interviewed Mr. Russell and eliminated alternative causes, documented the scene, and identified a 'suspect area' by examining burn patterns on the studs in the portion of the wall that survived the fire," Judge Kermit Bye wrote for the court. "He reviewed the burn patterns on the kitchen appliances and confirmed with Mr. Russell the placement of the appliances in the kitchen before the fire. Based on the burn patterns on those appliances, the near-complete destruction of the refrigerator, its position at the bottom of the debris, and the metal thickness variation at the bottom part of the refrigerator frame, Giggy concluded the fire started in the refrigerator. We believe Giggy's methods are sufficiently similar to the methods we found reliable in Shuck and Hickerson. Giggy did more than simply 'eyeball' three kitchen appliances. He observed the relevant evidence, applied his specialized knowledge, excluded alternative causal theories, and reached a conclusion."

The court also disagreed that Martin caused a mistrial with a comment that allegedly admitted its previous refrigerator-related fires into evidence.

"Whirlpool offers no compelling explanation of how it was prejudiced or denied a fair trial by Martin's comment, and our review of the record reveals no unfairness," Bye wrote. "Therefore, we conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Whirlpool's motion for a mistrial."

Judges Raymond Gruender and Bobby Shepherd concurred with Bye.

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