Beware of the hidden dangers when insulating an attic with blown-in cellulose insulation to save money on heating bills. Some insulation contractors have awful safety records.
The Smiths had enough of high heating bills. They call Cramden Inc. for a free energy audit. Cramden Inc. runs the free energy audit program for local utility companies. Cramden Inc.’s energy specialist recommends installing blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic floor to limit heat loss from the living space below. The Smiths sign a contract with Cramden Inc., which then assigns it to a subcontractor, Norton Insulators, which will perform the physical installation. The Smiths’ utility company picks up two-thirds of the cost and the Smiths pay the balance.
Three weeks after the job was completed, the Smiths are home eating dinner. There is a knock at their door. Mr. Smith opens the door. Someone passing by informs him that flames are shooting out of his roof.
Responding firefighters attack the seat of the fire from inside the attic. The firefighters exit the attic to refill their oxygen tanks. Firefighter Brown is the last one out of the attic. He is wearing over 100 pounds of gear. The metal treads of the pull-down attic stairs are wet and slippery from water used to fight the fire and from wet insulation. Firefighter Brown slips on a metal tread and falls backwards. Reflexively, he reaches up with his left hand, catching himself on to the attic floor but severely injures his shoulder in the process.
Firefighter Brown is taken by ambulance to the Emergency Room. Over the next several years, he has four surgeries on his left shoulder in hopes of repairing torn internal structures and to stabilize his shoulder. Nevertheless, his left shoulder pain and instability continue. The internal structures are too damaged to keep the head of his left upper arm from slipping out of the shoulder joint. Firefighter Brown is only thirty-five years old when he is retired from the fire department due to this disability. Frustrated by his inability to finish his career in public service, which he sought after serving with the Marines, he has concerns for how he will support his wife and two young children.
Brown’s frustration grows when he learns this attic fire was no accident. Fire investigators determine the fire started because of a recessed light fixture in the attic, which was covered by a thick layer of cellulose insulation during the recent installation. Investigators find the classic “V” shaped burn pattern on the joist where Norton Insulators covered the recessed light fixture with cellulose insulation.
Brown contacted us after he learned about the work we do for injured public safety officers. I filed a lawsuit against Cramden Inc. and Norton Insulators. Cramden Inc.’s attorneys argues they had no responsibility for the work done by Norton Insulators. Norton Insulator’s attorneys twice tried to get the case thrown out of Court, arguing it owed no duty of care to an injured firefighter, only to the homeowner, who contracted with it. Norton Insulators also argued the injury to the firefighter, who was not burned in the fire, was not foreseeable. In addition, Norton Insulators argued it was the firefighter’s job to get hurt. The Court rejected Norton Insulators’ arguments and twice denied its motion to dismiss the case. Instead, the Court ruled that Massachusetts provides injured firefighters the same legal rights as anyone else who brings a claim for compensation against responsible third parties who cause their injuries. Moreover, the Court ruled it was foreseeable a firefighter fighting a fire in the confined space of an attic could be injured in the process of exiting the attic.
Since the 1970’s it has been the industry safety rule to keep cellulose insulation at least three inches away from recessed light fixtures and other heat sources. Some older model recessed light fixtures can become fire hazards if they are covered up and are left on long enough. The cellulose insulation traps the heat from the illuminated fixture beneath it. As a result, contractors continue to follow the three-inch clearance safety rule by creating a barrier around recessed light fixtures and other heat producing sources in attics to keep cellulose insulation at least three inches away during the installation process. If the fixture is left on long enough, the trapped heat can become so hot it can ignite wooden joists and other nearby flammable materials. Had the Smiths not been alerted at dinner time, the whole family could have perished in their sleep – without the fire department’s emergency response, the fire could have spread from the attic and down the walls while they slept.
I uncovered disturbing information about these two contractors. In the three months before the Smith’s attic job was completed by Norton Insulators, Cramden Inc. inspected forty-nine attic insulation jobs completed by Norton Insulators. Norton Insulators failed 49% of the completed jobs. Cramden’s inspectors found Norton Insulators created fire hazards in many of these homes by covering one or more recessed light fixtures and heated bath fans with blown in cellulose insulation. Nevertheless, Cramden Inc. allowed Norton Insulators to remain in the program and continued to subcontract insulation jobs to them. The Smiths testified Cramden Inc. never warned them about the three-inch safety rule nor Norton Insulators’ awful safety record. Norton Insulator’s crew leader testified during a deposition that he missed locating this particular recessed light fixture because it didn’t appear on the rough diagram prepared by Cramden Inc. He then admitted the light fixture, which was one of ten, was in clear view on the ceiling above the bathtub, had he taken the time to look. As a result, when preparing the Smiths’ attic, his crew covered it with a thick layer of cellulose insulation. Rather than kicking Norton Insulators out of the program for repeatedly violating the three-inch safety rule which created fire hazards in eight different homes, Cramden Inc. continued sending Norton Insulators out on new jobs. Norton Insulators did a high volume of insulation jobs for Cramden Inc. when compared with other subcontractors Cramden Inc. assigned contracts to. I was not surprised to learn Cramden Inc. received valuable bonuses from the utilities based upon the number of completed attic insulation jobs during the year.
After numerous depositions, Cramden Inc. and Norton Insulators agreed to settle all claims made against them by Firefighter Brown for $1.6 million. Although he will never be able to resume his career as a firefighter, Brown now has the ability to financially support his family. Some fires are just plain accidents. This one was not. It never had to happen. It is retired Firefighter Brown’s hope that word gets out about the dangers of improper installation of cellulose insulation as well as firefighters’ rights to seek compensation when injured by fires caused by reckless contractors.
– Steven M. Ballin, Esq.
The names of the those involved in this matter have been changed for privacy reasons. Any resemblance to names of real persons, past or present, is merely coincidental and not intended. The injured firefighter agreed to have this article published in order that firefighters around the Commonwealth be better educated about their legal rights to compensation when injured-on-duty.