Fire Legal Liability: Who Is Responsible When Business Structures Are Involved?

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Fire legal liability is an issue companies and organizations often try to avoid facing head on. We hope you don’t follow that lead.
The truth about fire legal liability can be a tough pill to swallow.
Here’s the truth: Your business is at risk of fire liability litigation – even if you didn’t start the fire.
Let’s look at why that is and what you can do to protect your company’s reputation and assets against one of nature’s scariest events: fire.

How You Can Be Held Liable for a Fire You Didn’t Start

We all know a company that starts a fire can be held liable for damages caused by that fire.

Here’s a major case in point:

News reports say Pacific Gas and Electric – the largest utility in California – is headed to bankruptcy court due to billions of dollars in claims against the company over fire legal liability issues. The 2018 Camp Fire was the final straw, but that came on the heels of a disastrous fire season the preceding year. PG&E was found at fault for sparking 17 fires in 2017.

Your business probably doesn’t maintain high-voltage power lines and transformers that traverse tinder-dry forests, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

Here are the two primary ways fire legal liability can rear its ugly head … even if you didn’t start the fire:

  • You can be found liable for losses incurred by your employees and customers if a court finds you didn’t adequately prepare and follow through on a plan to protect them during a fire emergency
  • You can be found liable for losses incurred by the public if you store hazardous materials and didn’t prepare and enact a suitable plan to contain those materials in the event of a fire emergency

Smart business managers not only have a fire emergency plan in place, but they practice carrying out that plan and document their efforts at preparedness.

Ask yourself:

  • How long has it been since you last held a fire drill at your company or organization? Did it include a plan to make sure visitors get to a safe zone?
  • Are you confident your employees could react swiftly and appropriately to a fire emergency?
  • Do you have a list of the hazardous materials your company uses, and are they stored with fire safety in mind?
  • Do you have a hazmat security plan in place, and is it taken seriously?
  • If a fire threatened the properties your business occupies – right now – are you confident your protective plan and structures are solid and sufficient?

Whether wildland fire or structural fire, whether caused by humans or by nature – fires happen regularly. Don’t rely on “It’s never happened here” as a way to avoid dealing squarely with this very real and ever-present danger.

Fire Legal Liability and Litigation Factors

There are three primary types of events that can leave a business open to fire damage liability and litigation:

  • If your operations cause a fire to begin, you could be held liable
  • If a fire threatens your facility, you could be liable for the safety of those inside your facility
  • If a fire causes a release of hazardous materials from your business, you could face litigation

No commercial operation is exempt from all of those factors. Your company could be doing an excellent job with sales, marketing, customer service, and facilities management – but one catastrophic event could threaten the financial survival of the organization.

A fire may start small, but quickly become uncontrollable. The image above is courtesy of the BLM.

What Can Companies Do to Protect Against Fires and Fire Liability Litigation?

Whether you’re located in a wildland-urban interface (WUI) area or a major city, and whether your company employs thousands or you’re a small business, the first step towards protecting your interests against fire legal liability and litigation issues is to create a fire emergency plan … and use it.

The best fire emergency plan is more than a document carefully worded and filed away. It’s a pre-planned and pre-practiced series of steps your staff can take when an active fire incident pushes the stress level high and requires competent emergency-focused leadership.

Here are some of the questions an adequate fire emergency plan will address:

  • If your business location is in a WUI area, how will you monitor threats and adjust business operations to promote fire prevention during high-risk times of the year?
  • What are the steps that will be taken when a fire is discovered – whether nearby or within your facility?
  • What are evacuation routes and how will you make sure all employees, clients, and visitors escape the danger?
  • Who are the designated coordinators and supervisors of the plan? How will they initiate and maintain communications?
  • How will you make sure physically and mentally challenged individuals receive the special assistance they may need?
  • What hazardous materials are on your property, and how will they be secured against a fire?
  • How will you deal with an extended loss of power at your business? What are boot-up procedures for sensitive equipment?
  • How will you secure your facilities if they must be vacated?
  • How will you make sure your staff is aware of the fire emergency plan and can carry it out? What training will take place and when?

When fires move beyond the forest to set buildings ablaze, they burn more than the wood. Toxins from the building materials and from any hazardous materials stored in the building are likely to be released, and inhaled particulates may lead to serious health concerns.

Be ready to act swiftly and deliberately when faced with a WUI or structural fire emergency. Your strategic fire emergency plan – properly developed, learned, and implemented – will help prepare the trail you can follow when your daily operating plan is disrupted by unforeseen events.

The photo and graphic above are courtesy of the USFS and NFPA.

How to Get Help with Your Fire Emergency Plan and Fire Legal Liability Questions

FACS team members often serve as expert witnesses before the court on legal issues faced by our clients – but we prefer to help you avoid legal entanglement altogether.

We’re not lawyers, we’re science-centered professionals who help businesses like yours find ways to mitigate risks and keep both downtime and expenses from emergency responses to a minimum.

We can help your management team develop a strategic fire emergency plan to protect the health of your people, your structures, and the environment.

That plan can save money, property, and lives. It can also help create a barrier against fire legal liability charges and the potential of costly litigation procedures.

To get in touch with FACS, call (888) 711-9998 or use our contact form.