CBC Investigates

Family blames iPhone for sparking fire that destroyed Langley farmhouse, demands $600K from Apple

A B.C. couple are demanding Apple pay $600,000 in uninsured losses after they were forced to close their farm business following a devastating house fire that they claim was sparked by a faulty iPhone.

Tech giant and insurer allegedly in standoff as rebuilding costs soar for owners of popular farm

Cathy and Ian Finley started Laurica Farm in Langley, B.C., in 2013. A fire destroyed their farmhouse in October 2016. (Ken Leedham/CBC)

A B.C. couple are demanding Apple pay $600,000 in uninsured losses after they were forced to close their farm business following a devastating house fire that they claim was sparked by a faulty iPhone.

Cathy and Ian Finley believe a three-month-old iPhone 6 left plugged into a charge cord somehow heated up and started a fire in their living room in October 2016.

Fire officials who found the blackened device while investigating reported that "it would appear that the phone or charger generated enough heat to ignite" in a chair that was identified as the place the fire started.

While there's no official determination of the cause of the fire, it's sparked the passions of people who support the Finleys' business, Laurica Farm.

Laurica Farm's owners kicked off a social media campaign trying to shame Apple into paying for their losses after a fire they believe was sparked by an iPhone. (Facebook/Laurica Farm)

Hundreds of people have signed a petition on Change.org and Facebook demanding Apple pay the family for losses after they were forced to close their popular farm, which was known for kids camps and sustainable farming tours.

Apple confirmed it is looking into the couple's claim, but had no comment.

'I remember seeing smoke'

Exactly how flames were sparked in the Langley, B.C., farmhouse on Oct. 11, 2016, remains unclear.

"I was having problems with my phone. It had been glitching in the days running up to the fire," said Cathy Finley.

She said on the day of the fire, she plugged the phone in before heading out to feed goats. She was out for a while before she noticed smoke coming from the farmhouse and thought that odd.

"I remember seeing smoke. When I got about two metres from the house, the heat was intense. I couldn't get any closer. I opened the door, but I was just engulfed in smoke," she said. 

"And then it was just a scramble. My phone was in the house, so I scrambled to a neighbour's."

Langley fire prevention officers labelled this incinerated cellphone the 'item of origin' in the fire that destroyed the Laurica farm house on Oct. 11, 2016. This grainy image was part of the report written by Capt. Ken Strand. (Township of Langley Fire Department Field Report)

Alone and hobbling on an injured leg, Cathy felt helpless. Her husband was at work and her daughters Lauren, 17, and Jessica, 10, were at school.

"I watched the house burn around me," she said.

Flames consumed almost everything. At Christmas that year, Santa got a letter from Jessica asking him to replace her ukulele and stuffed bunny.

After the fire

Langley fire prevention officials investigated and concluded that flames originated on the chair where the iPhone had been charging.

"I remember thinking, I'm glad it didn't happen last night when we were all in bed," said Cathy.

The remains of the iPhone charging cable after the fire that destroyed a house at Laurica Farm. (Township of Langley Fire Department Field Report)

After a year of negotiating, a $600,000 insurance payout allowed the Finleys to begin rebuilding.

But the ordeal hurt their farming business and insurance didn't cover all costs.

They were too overwhelmed to continue their vegetable delivery program and had to refund customers. They also cancelled planned celebrity chef dinners and school tours as they dealt with insurance details and rebuilding.

They spent their first month digging trenches and diverting power and water, doing most of the work themselves.

In August 2017, they began building a new home. But Cathy now fears they won't have the financial means to finish it.

"We might lose this house that we are building with our own hands," she said.

Last February, she began writing to Apple to seek help. But she said dozens of calls, emails and conversations went nowhere, despite the reassurance of Apple's case worker.

Cathy Finley was feeding the goats at Laurica Farm on the day her house caught fire. (Ken Leedham/CBC)

A year later, after building up the courage to call Apple, then months of chasing them for help and sobbing on the phone, Finley said she has given up on addressing the issue with them directly.

A tally of the family's uninsured losses, from the stalled farm and tour business to building and medication costs, came to about an additional $600,000.

So now, the Finleys are trying to shame Apple into covering those losses by letting people hear the tearful recordings of their calls to the company, which they've published on social media.

Within days, 1,700 people signed their petition, after reading 17-year-old Lauren's description on Facebook of how she found out her home had burned down.

"[My father] is by far the hardest working and strongest person ever, and while on the phone to him, he started to get emotional, and I knew it was a lot worse than what that text had said," Lauren wrote.

Forensic firm studying phone

The Finleys said their insurer, The Co-operators, and Apple have become adversarial and that's slowed any solution.

A private forensic firm working for fire officials has the destroyed phone. Apple has been unable to examine the burned phone or cord and won't commit to further action until then.

Both Apple and The Co-operators declined public comment.

The Finleys are rebuilding their home in Langley, B.C., with fireproof material and hemp insulation. But they're not sure how long they can afford to live there. (Ken Leedham/CBC)

While there have been past cases of fires sparked by faulty lithium batteries, those reported publicly about Apple products are scarce and usually involve improper use or non-Apple accessories.

In January, Reuters and other news agencies reported that an Apple Store in Zurich, Switzerland, was evacuated after an iPhone battery reportedly overheated.

In 2017, a Wisconsin lawsuit was filed alleging a defective iPhone 4S battery sparked a fire, according to United States District Court documents.

Who or what is to blame?

The Finleys obtained the initial fire investigation report that concluded the fire originated in the leather chair, where the cell phone was found.

"It would appear that the phone or charger generated enough heat to ignite the leather chair and notebook and start the fire," read the conclusions of Langley Fire Prevention Officer Capt. Ken Strand, dated Oct. 13, 2016.

He later clarified that an official cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

"The cellphone was on a combustible surface while charging. It was in the area of origin but was not ruled out or determined to be the igniting object or direct cause of the fire," he wrote to CBC.

Ian and Cathy Finley work on the house they are trying to build to replace their burned-down home. (Ken Leedham/CBC)

Past fires involving lithium-ion batteries have led to warnings for consumers to charge any device on non-combustible surfaces, Strand added.

But a legal expert said such warnings don't automatically erase a company's liability in a fire — especially if the warning to consumers is not clear or prominent.

"You can't expect the purchaser of the product to read everything and to understand everything," said Hillel David, a lawyer with McCague Borlack in Toronto, who has 35 years of experience in insurance claims.

Left in limbo

In the meantime, the Finleys wait and work on their house. Ian Finley said he's angry about delays allegedly caused by lack of cooperation between Apple and insurer.

At one point, he got legal advice and was told to expect the process — if it headed to court — to take up to five years.

But he's been offered no information about how long negotiations will take, though The Co-operators told CBC they are ready to let Apple examine the phone as soon as they can all get together.

"Just sit down and sort it out. It's not rocket science from my perspective," Ian Finley said. 

"We are not asking to get rich from this. We just want to be able to stay."

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend