A fire incident occurred at an Australian property leasing a number of commercial tenancies which included food retailers. Resultant of the fire damage, fire and smoke contamination was suspected to have spread beyond the principally effected tenancy. The Insured’s Builder engaged a Hygienist to assess the tenancies.
The Hygienist’s report asserted that “due to the contamination (the retailers) are unable to comply with the OH&S regulations in so far as food retail is concerned”. This assessment resulted in a claim submission totalling almost $250,000. However, both the Loss Adjuster and Insurer involved had good reason to doubt the methodologies used by the Hygienist and the pre-emptive recommendations contained in his report. Oriel were subsequently engaged to provide an expert opinion on the extent of the fire and smoke contamination throughout the commercial property.
The findings and recommendations as per the Hygienist report were drawn from a questionable examination methodology and a reporting language subject to hyperbole. The key elements of the Hygienists report subject to dispute were:
- The Hygienist tested a range of surfaces across the principally affected tenancy focusing on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) which are toxic in nature.The Hygienist adopted a daily exposure criteria that is at odds with the recommendations of organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the Cancer Council.
- The Hygienist asserted that one or more samples tested were in excess of recommended daily exposure levels and as such all tenancies in the property required further testing. However, of the 32 samples taken within the principally affected tenancy, just four exceeded recommended exposure levels with two samples being from the seat of the fire and two taken from an adjoining wall directly affected by the fire. This suggested contamination was likely to be limited only to the principally affected tenancy.
- The recommendation for decontamination of ceiling cavity of the principally affected tenancy and one other tenancy as well as further representative sampling to be undertaken in the surrounding tenancies.
- The recommendation for soft furnishings or porous materials in the principally affected tenancy and one surrounding tenancy be discarded and replaced due to the costs and difficulties in removing contamination from these items successfully.
- The recommendation that disturbance from ceiling decontamination process is likely to cause dust laden with contaminants to fall onto the surfaces below spreading contamination and as such the removal or covering of stock and furnishings to avoid further contamination is necessary.
With sufficient reason to doubt the methodologies and recommendations of the Hygienists report, the challenge for Oriel was to disprove its findings.
Oriel’s solution involved commissioning a second Hygienist to conduct extensive testing within all the tenancies identified by the Builder’s Hygienist to be subject to contamination. As suspected, no PAH’s were found to be in excess of the adopted criteria levels in any tenancies other than the primarily affected tenancy. However, given the somewhat conflicting information by each Hygienists expert report. A third independent Hygienists report was commissioned to comment on both reports.
The third Hygienists also took issue with the testing methodologies of the original Hygienist’s report stating they were scientifically inaccurate and as a consequence the reports recommendations invalid. The conclusion of this final report was that the decontamination cleaning (and subsequent recommendations) in the tenancies other than the principally affected tenancy deemed unnecessary unless for aesthetic reasons.
Based on the second and third Hygienist’s reports, Oriel had sufficient evidence to discredit the recommendations made by the Builders Hygienist. The result was that a claim almost totalling $250,000 was reduced to just $5,000.