On a Monday after business hours, fire swept through a retail complex occupied by several small businesses, including a wine store and winemaking facility. The 60-year-old complex was so badly damaged that local fire officials struggled to pinpoint the fire’s cause. Arson was suspected but no suspects were identified.

The insurer for the winemaker sought our opinion. After studying photos and reports from initial site inspections, we found evidence of an abandoned sprinkler system. We hired a well-known fire suppression engineer, who went to the scene with us for a closer look.

Even though the complex was all but destroyed, our engineer found the remnants of the original system and confirmed it was not functioning. Evidence suggested the water supply had been cut off earlier. He concluded that, had the system been working, it would have greatly reduced any losses suffered by the wine merchant.

Working with available evidence and the engineer’s report, we developed a theory that the building owner failed to maintain the fire suppression system. The opposing insurer responded that the owner was under no obligation to keep the system working. They denied the claim and refused to settle.

While our client was skeptical — and insurers for the other small businesses decided not to subrogate — we ultimately filed suit. After 3 years of litigation and several depositions, the building owner filed a motion for summary judgment, which the court denied. With trial pending, the owner’s insurer resolved the case by paying a substantial settlement.