Sierra Pacific Industries has been arguing for nearly six years that it wasn’t responsible for starting the 2007 Moonlight Fire. Last week the timber company received a favorable ruling that helped to bolster its claim.
One week before a civil trial was scheduled to begin in Plumas County Superior Court in Portola, Judge Leslie C. Nichols reviewed the evidence and told the prospective jurors to stay home. He said there simply wasn’t enough evidence against SPI to justify a trial.
CalFire was suing SPI for $8 million to pay the state’s expenses from fighting the two-week wildfire that burned 65,000 acres.
The victory for SPI and the other defendants named in the lawsuit is a shallow one. Although the ruling is symbolically huge, the real damage to the family-owned timber company was done almost exactly a year ago. That’s when a different judge ruled SPI could be held responsible for the Moonlight Fire even if neither the company nor its contractors started it. In other words, SPI could have gone to trial, proved its case, and still have been ordered to pay $700 million in damages sought by the federal government.
SPI and the other defendants had no choice but to settle out of court for $122.5 million — the largest amount ever paid for damages caused by a forest fire.
SPI said at the time that the settlement — which was a half billion dollars less than the government wanted — proved it had a good case. The timber company said the investigation by the feds and CalFire was deeply flawed. And SPI was itching to try the case in court. Instead it was strong-armed into the massive settlement.
SPI blasted the government for having a “bounty hunter mentality.” And, frankly, we agree.
We aren’t saying that the government and individuals who suffer damages in a wildfire shouldn’t be compensated if someone is found to be negligent. In fact, the $8 million in firefighting costs was within reason. But $700 million? That was about eight times more than the timber was worth before it burned.
SPI had every right to believe it was being unfairly tried and convicted. The company was reportedly named as a defendant just 48 hours after the fire started.
The judge’s decision last week to dismiss the case against SPI was a good one. Maybe it will set a precedent forcing a higher burden of proof in cases like this. It is just too bad that a similar decision wasn’t rendered a year ago, when there was much more on the line.
It is becoming tougher and tougher to do business in our over-regulated and litigation-minded state. If SPI had lost this latest court battle, who could blame the company if it decided to sell off its California timber land, close its mills, and take its business elsewhere?
Lawsuits seeking to recover damages will always be part of the landscape in this country. But, somehow, we have to find a way to make sure the amount requested is in line with the actual damages instead of the defendants’ perceived ability to pay.