Moonlight Fire lawsuit against Sierra Pacific Industries, others dismissed
Aug. 2, 2013 — Sierra Pacific Industries announced recently Judge Leslie C. Nichols, sitting by appointment in the Plumas County Superior Court, dismissed a lawsuit brought by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for monetary damages against Sierra Pacific Industries and other defendants. The state and several private plaintiffs had alleged a logger employed by Sierra Pacific Industries had negligently started the Moonlight Fire on private land which spread to the Plumas National Forest and other private holdings Sept. 3, 2007.
“This is a significant victory for Sierra Pacific Industries and the other defendants in the case,” said company spokesman Mark Pawlicki. “We knew all along the evidence did not support the state’s claim that our contractor started the fire.”
Sierra Pacific alleged the government’s fire investigators in this case conducted a faulty investigation and were not able to demonstrate what the true origin of the fire was. “Although Calfire employees are highly regarded for their professionalism and integrity, unfortunately the Moonlight investigations did not live up to that standard,” said Pawlicki.
During recent depositions, Calfire's own expert on wildland fire investigations concluded it was "more probable than not" the Moonlight investigators engaged in acts of deception while testifying about a primary aspect of their investigation.
The government’s investigators in the Moonlight Fire had alleged Sierra Pacific Industries’ logger started the fire by striking a rock with a bulldozer causing a spark to ignite woody material. Further, the state alleged the logger failed to obey the law, which requires a series of procedures to be followed during logging operations. Judge Nichols ruled the state did not have evidence to support these claims.
The court had earlier ruled Calfire could not succeed unless it shows the defendants caused the fire. Then, after reviewing more than 800 pages of legal briefing, voluminous deposition testimony and hearing evidence on the case for three days, Judge Nichols determined the government’s claims should be dismissed and entered a judgment in favor of all defendants. He concluded Calfire could not provide evidence adequate to justify submitting the matter to a jury. In contrast, a federal court had ruled in 2012 Sierra Pacific Industries could be liable for damages in this case even if its operators did not start the fire. That decision led to a settlement with the federal government in which Sierra Pacific Industries paid $55 million in damages, and will transfer 22,500 acres of timberland to the federal government.
Overall, the state spent several years, approximately $10 million taxpayer dollars and thousands of hours in its effort to collect $8 million in fire suppression costs, only to have its case dismissed by the court. Early on, Sierra Pacific’s counsel urged the Deputy Attorney General in charge of this matter to dismiss the case, arguing the investigation was fatally flawed. Unfortunately, that request was refused. In the end, Judge Nichols dismissed it for them, concluding, “Calfire’s reach exceeded its grasp.”
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