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Fowler v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

August 6, 2014

James D. Fowler, Respondent,
v.
Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company and Andrew Flanagan, Defendants, of Whom Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company is the Appellant

Heard: April 9, 2014.

Appeal From Oconee County. Alexander S. Macaulay, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2012-213250.

John Robert Murphy and Wesley Brian Sawyer, both of Murphy & Grantland, P.A., of Columbia, for Appellant.

Clinch H. Belser, Jr., Michael Joseph Polk, and H. Freeman Belser, all of Belser & Belser, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondent.

WILLIAMS, J. KONDUROS and LOCKEMY, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 250

[410 S.C. 405] WILLIAMS, J.:

After his home was destroyed by fire, James D. Fowler brought this suit against Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company (" Nationwide" ), claiming Nationwide improperly denied his insurance claim. Following a jury verdict in Fowler's favor, Nationwide appealed, arguing the circuit court erred in admitting opinion testimony from a non-expert. We reverse and remand.

[410 S.C. 406] FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 17, 2009, Fowler's home in Oconee County, South Carolina, was destroyed by fire. The Friendship Fire Department, a local volunteer fire department, and its fire chief, David Wright, responded to the emergency call and were responsible for putting out the fire at Fowler's home. When Chief Wright arrived at Fowler's home, the fire had already burned through the roof, and a large beam had fallen, blocking the front door to the home.

After the fire department extinguished the fire, Chief Wright completed a standardized form known as a " Truck Report." According to Chief Wright, state regulations require fire departments to complete a Truck Report after each fire and submit the form to the State Fire Marshal's office. A Truck Report contains basic information about the fire. Chief Wright testified he followed specific instructions from a manual provided to the fire department when he completed the Truck Report.

At the time of the fire, Fowler had a homeowner's fire insurance policy with Nationwide. After an initial meeting with Fowler, Nationwide decided to conduct an independent investigation into the cause of the fire. Nationwide hired a certified fire investigator to examine the cause and origin of the fire. Nationwide also conducted its own investigation into Fowler's financial circumstances at the time of his claim. Relying upon the motive and opportunity created by Fowler's financial difficulties at the time of his claim and its fire investigator's finding the fire was incendiary, Nationwide determined the fire was intentional. Accordingly, Nationwide denied Fowler coverage based upon his policy's intentional acts exclusion.

On June 29, 2009, Fowler brought suit against Nationwide and Andrew Flanagan, Nationwide's local claims adjuster, alleging breach of contract, bad faith of an insurance contract, and slander per se. The case was tried before a jury in Oconee County on November 28 through December 2, 2011.

Prior to the start of trial, Nationwide made a motion in limine to exclude testimony from Chief Wright as to the cause and origin of the fire. Nationwide also objected to the admission of corresponding portions of the Truck Report containing [410 S.C. 407] Chief Wright's opinions. Nationwide renewed these objections at trial. Prior to Chief Wright's testimony before the jury, the circuit court allowed both parties to conduct voir dire on Chief Wright and heard further arguments on the admissibility of Chief Wright's opinions and the Truck Report. The circuit court ultimately held Chief Wright was not qualified as an expert and therefore could not give opinion testimony. However, the circuit court admitted the Truck Report into evidence and allowed Chief Wright to testify about the report and his rationale in completing it.

Page 251

On the version of the Truck Report admitted at trial, Chief Wright provided the following information: (1) in the blank for " Area of Origin," Wright wrote " Living Room" ; (2) in the blank for " Cause of Ignition," Wright wrote " Unintentional" ; and (3) in the blank for " Equipment involved in Ignition," Wright wrote " Heater." During his testimony, Chief Wright explained his observations of the fire and his rationale for his entries on the Truck Report. He testified that he indicated the " Living Room" was the area of origin because it was the most heavily damaged area in the house. He explained that he wrote " Unintentional" for the cause of ignition because he did not see or smell anything that made him suspect the use of accelerants or arson. Finally, Chief Wright explained that he wrote " Heater" for the equipment involved in ignition because a kerosene heater was at the base of a V-shaped burn pattern on the wall of the living room. Chief Wright ...


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