Where There’s Smoke, There’s John V. McCoy
Following fires and finding who’s at fault
Published in 2016 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on November 11, 2016
Updated on October 20, 2017
I spent four years as a military lawyer, and joined a firm in 1988. [Until] the first day I worked on this case, I don’t think I even knew that there was such a thing as propane. I would have had no idea there was even an area of litigation involving fires and explosions.
I was assigned to a very large industrial fire up in Manitowoc, where I represented a propane retailer. We settled the morning of trial at 2 a.m., and that became the largest verdict in the history of the state at that time—$23 million.
There were hundreds of depositions in this case—hundreds of thousands of documents. I really learned a lot about the industry and I arranged with my client, who at that time was the state president of the propane association, to get me to speak at the state convention. At that convention, two people in the audience, a guy named Jim Ferrell, who owns Ferrellgas … and then the president of the National Propane Gas Association, came up afterwards and said, “I really liked your speech. We’re putting together a group of lawyers to work on industrywide litigation like this. Would you like to be a founding member?”
I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”
Through that I started doing a lot of propane litigation around the country: defending retailers, wholesalers, truckers—primarily people providing to businesses or consumers. Somewhere along the way, other companies became involved and we expanded to general fire litigation. It can be a natural gas case, an arson case, a wildfire, spontaneous combustion, electrical fires, lightning strikes, dynamite cases, fireworks cases, product cases, gas cases—anything you can put a match to.
Today I’m going down to Iowa for a spontaneous combustion case. Next weekend I’m in Minnesota doing an inspection on a death at a construction site. We have fracking cases out in Wyoming. We have cases literally in every state.
We’re doing one of the largest explosions in the last 50 years. Two days after the Boston Marathon bombing there was an explosion in West, Texas [caused by] ammonium nitrate. It took 15 lives, [put] 300 people in the hospital, 37 blocks [were] destroyed, over 500 lawsuits and claims have been filed. The next morning I had six voicemails saying, “John, you need to be in Texas to take charge of this.”
A lot of times, we’ll get a call the day it happens or the next day, and then we arrange to get origin-and-cause investigators involved—or whatever skill set we need. You might need an electrical engineer, or a metallurgist, or a chemist, or an odoring expert or a human-factors expert. We bring that team together and, 24/7, we go to wherever it is. A lot of times we wear hardhats and steel-toed boots because you’ve got to be on accident scenes.
I also write articles in trade magazines, and work with the industry on safety practices. I’m working with a group to provide a curriculum so people can be trained in fire investigation. Whether they’re big companies or insurance companies, they can get a certification, and understand some of the things they need to know to make better decisions.
People always ask me, “Is this a dangerous industry?” And I say, “You’re asking the wrong person, because all I see are the mistakes.” No one calls and says, “Hey, I have a really good outcome, we didn’t have a fault.” They call me because, you know, five people are injured. I can tell you where the problems are and what I think can be done to correct them. I only see a small segment of what’s going on.
Fires and Explosions By the Numbers
$11.5 billion annual property damage from fires
1.3 million fires and explosions in the U.S.
610,500 outdoor fires annually
15,775 civilian injuries from fires
3,275 civilian deaths due to fires
24 seconds for a fire to be reported
according to 2014 data from National Fire Protection Association and United States Fire Administration