Before understanding spontaneous combustion, it is important to know what fire means in commercial terms.

Fire, in insurance policies, is defined as the actual ignition or burning of property under accidental or fortuitous circumstances. Of course, this definition may be subject to legal interpretation. This definition is significant with respect to determining coverage and resolving insurance claims. Insurance policies often include specific language and definitions to clarify what is covered and what is not.

Let's break down the key components as follows:

1.Actual ignition or burning: This part of the definition emphasizes that for a fire to be covered by an insurance policy, there must be a real and verifiable event of ignition or burning. It means that there must be a physical fire that causes damage to the insured property.

2. Accidental or fortuitous circumstances: Insurance policies typically cover fires that occur due to accidental or unforeseen events. This excludes intentional acts or arson, which are typically not covered. Fortuitous circumstances refer to unexpected or chance events.

Insurance policies can also include additional clauses and terms related to fires, such as exclusions or limitations. For example, they may exclude coverage for fires caused by certain factors like war, terrorism, or nuclear events. Additionally, policies may specify the circumstances under which they cover fire-related damage, such as damage to the insured property itself or damage to surrounding property.

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What is Spontaneous Combustion?

Spontaneous combustion refers to the phenomenon where an organic substance ignites and catches fire without any external heat source or ignition. This can occur when certain materials, such as oily rags, hay, or coal, undergo a chemical process that generates heat as a result of oxidation or decomposition. When the heat generated surpasses the substance's ignition temperature, it can lead to a fire breaking out on its own.

In terms of insurance, spontaneous combustion can indeed be covered under a special clause in fire and property insurance policies. This clause is often referred to as "spontaneous combustion coverage" or a similar term. It is designed to provide compensation to the policyholder in case damage or loss occurs due to a fire resulting from spontaneous combustion.

However, it's important to note that not all standard fire and property insurance policies automatically include this coverage. Policyholders may need to specifically request or add this clause to their insurance policy if they want protection against losses caused by spontaneous combustion. The inclusion of this coverage and its terms can vary among insurance providers and policies, so it's crucial to carefully review and understand your insurance policy to ensure you have the necessary coverage for your specific needs.

Case Studies/Example of Spontaneous Combustion

Bhopal Ombudsman Centre

In this case, the insured had a standard fire insurance policy for his bhoosa Godown No. 2, a reputed insurance company. The policy covered the period from 2008 to 2009

In August 2008, a fire occurred in the insured’s godown at 1:00 p.m., and he informed the insurer and the Police. The Respondent assigned a surveyor and loss assessor, who was provided with all necessary documents. However, the claim was ultimately rejected, citing that the fire was due to spontaneous combustion.

According to the respondent's self-contained note and survey report, they argued that the damages resulted from an abnormal rise in temperature, not physical fire, making the claim untenable.

The key dispute revolved around the cause of the fire. The respondent contended that the fire was due to an abnormal rise in temperature, while the complainant asserted it was set by an unknown party. The surveyor inspected the damaged property and concluded that the losses resulted from spontaneous combustion of straw. He provided a technical explanation of spontaneous combustion.

During the hearing, the respondent clarified that there were no visible physical flames or fire, a condition implied by the policy's fire claim coverage. The complainant argued that the nature of the bhoosa prevented flames from being visible if they burned. However, when asked about any police investigation and findings regarding the cause of the fire, the complainant did not provide any documents or a clear explanation.

The Respondent produced the policy and its conditions, highlighting that it covered specific losses due to fire, excluding losses caused by fermentation, natural heating, or spontaneous combustion. They considered spontaneous combustion due to abnormal temperature rise as the primary cause of the fire, which was not covered by the policy.

Considering the circumstances and the inspection conducted by an IRDA-licensed surveyor, who considered various factors related to the property and the nature of the damage, the decision to repudiate the claim was deemed just and fair. The complaint was dismissed without granting any relief.

Affected Materials

  1. Hay: Hay is highly susceptible to spontaneous combustion, especially if it contains more than 25% moisture. Microbiological activity within the hay can lead to the production of ethanol, which can ignite under certain conditions, such as exposure to static electricity.
  2. Charcoal: Freshly prepared charcoal can self-heat and catch fire. Factors such as the type of wood and the temperature at which the charcoal was prepared can influence its propensity for self-heating.
  3. Coal: Self-heating in coal varies depending on its rank, with lignite coals being more active than bituminous coals, and bituminous coals being more active than anthracite coals. Freshly mined coal is more prone to self-heating than weathered coal.
  4. Cotton: Cotton can also be a problem as it can ignite spontaneously, especially if stored improperly. There have been historical incidents of cotton cargoes spontaneously igniting on ships.
  5. Oil Seeds and Oil-Seed Products: Oil seeds and residue from oil extraction can self-heat if too moist. Mold fungi activity, particularly in the presence of excess moisture, can generate heat. Various oil seeds, such as palm kernels, rapeseed, and cotton seed, have been studied for their propensity for self-heating.

It's crucial for individuals and industries handling these materials to take appropriate precautions to prevent spontaneous combustion, such as maintaining proper moisture levels, storage conditions, and ventilation. Failure to do so can lead to fires and potential hazards.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Does fire insurance cover spontaneous combustion?

Typically, fire insurance policies don't include coverage for spontaneous combustion, categorizing it as an exclusion. A separate add-on can be obtained to protect against damage from spontaneous combustion, offering protection in cases where the insured's property is affected by fire caused by spontaneous combustion.

2. Are there any risk factors for spontaneous combustion?

Spontaneous combustion, a significant fire risk, frequently arises in accumulations of oil-soaked rags. It results from three mechanisms: spontaneous heating, pyrophoricity, and hypergolic reactions.

3. Is it possible to prevent a fire resulting from spontaneous combustion?

Yes, it is.

Preventing spontaneous combustion is straightforward, as it requires the presence of oxygen to happen. To safeguard against materials prone to spontaneous combustion, it's advisable to store them in securely sealed metal containers, such as safety cans or metal rubbish bins.

4. Please elaborate on conditions contributing to spontaneous combustion.

Spontaneous combustion is a phenomenon that can be triggered under specific conditions. It may include the role of a substance with a relatively low ignition temperature, such as materials like hay, straw, or peat, starting to generate heat on its own. This can happen through various mechanisms, including oxidation in the presence of moisture and air, as well as the heat produced during bacterial fermentation.