April 2, 2014 | APRIL 2014 | Volume 8, Iss

House unanimously passes Pearson forest-fire liability bill

By a vote of 98-0, the House approved a bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirk Pearson, which would establish guidelines for lawsuits involving property damages caused by forest fires.

 “The idea behind this bill is to bring some certainty and fairness to legal actions that result from fires on public or private forested lands,” said Pearson, R-Monroe. “My hope is that the bill will help establish a fair level of compensation and avoid situations like in California where the court has assigned monetary value to damages far beyond the real, tangible losses resulting from a forest fire.”

 Senate Bill 5972 would create a new category of legal action for property damage caused by a fire that started on, or spread from, a public or private forested land. The bill also encourages the retention of forested land and provides a statutory framework for the kinds of damages that can be recovered.

 The measure is very similar to bills that have been enacted in California, Idaho, Montana, and most recently, Oregon. State legislatures across the country have been addressing the liability concerns of businesses and private landowners in their state ever since a California jury awarded a $36.4 million judgment to the federal government for a forest fire in the Angeles National Forest. In June 2012 the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judgment, which included $28.8 million for “intangible environmental harm.”

 Going forward, SB 5972 would give federal judges guidance as to the intent of the Legislature to limit liability in similar cases. Under the bill, damages would be limited to actual monetary loss and other measurable damages, such as the cost of firefighting services and timber loss.

 “The bill provides certainty by putting into statute a specific definition of property damages, as they apply to fire cases,” said Pearson. “It is a crucial first step to bringing order to what has become a chaotic litigation environment.”

 Pearson also pointed out that the bill will positively impact Washington schools, given the liability protection it would provide to the state’s trust lands.

 “The primary beneficiaries of the 2.4 million acres of trust lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources are school districts,” said Pearson. “With about a thousand miles of that land bordering federal forests, there is a serious exposure issue for our state. In the case of a forest fire originating on those lands, any excessive damages awarded to the federal government would be paid from either the general fund or with money from the trust lands fund, which goes to support school buildings.

 “Providing legislative guidance to federal courts on this issue would help protect our state trust lands and potentially save millions of dollars for our schools.”

 SB 5972, which was requested by the Department of Natural Resources, was amended in the House and now goes back to the Senate, to be reconciled with the version of the bill that passed in that chamber.

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