Lawsuits fan the blame game over Round Fire

By Deb Murphy

Two years ago Swall Meadows was nearly devoured by flames fanned by erratic winds. It will take another year for a complex series of lawsuits to go to court in Los Angeles.

The Cal Fire investigation into the Round Fire leveled the blame at ”extreme winds,” going so far to say “The investigation determined SCE (Southern California Edison) had maintained tree clearance of the power lines and the tree (that brought down the power lines) could not have been identified as a hazard tree prior to the incident.”

The facts of the investigation identified the tree and the fallen power lines on or near the property of Walt Schober. According to the report, one of the tree’s three main root systems were decayed and aligned with the direction of the wind. “The weakness in the tree and the high winds combined to cause the tree to fall,” the report states. “…the weakness would not have been visible prior to the event.”

But insurance companies can’t recoup payments paid to homeowners from Mother Nature, so Bergan Kahn of Irvine, the law firm representing five insurance companies, filed suit February 2016 against Southern California Edison, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the land owner, Utility Tree Service, under contract for maintenance with SCE and LADWP, Mobray’s Tree Service, a subcontractor to Utility and 50 potential Does. According to court documents, a total of 10 lawsuits resulted from the fire, all of which have been consolidated into one complex trial slated for late January 2018.

The Bergan Kahn suit alleges negligence on the part of all the defendants charging they “caused and/or permitted the fire.” According to the complaint, “LADWP breached its duty once it was put on actual and constructive notice of at least one large tree, existing on the property, progressively encroaching upon energized power lines for several months prior to the fire’s ignition.”

However, according to the Cal Fire investigation, Walt Schober, on or near whose property the fire started, told investigators “a SCE vegetation management crew had trimmed the trees near the power lines approximately two to three weeks” prior to the fire.

SCE and LADWP traded punches and legal documents last November, each challenging the other, all entities named in the original suit and however many Does might pop up. The cross-complaints allege total non-responsibility on the plaintiffs’ respective parts. The cross-complaints go on to ask that, “if the allegations in the underlying action are found to be true”, the costs be shared equally. In other words, SCE and/or LADWP would pay the same share as Mobray’s Tree Service.

While the outcome of the trial next year is unsure, one sure thing: the attorneys’ fees in the case will be massive.

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11 Responses to Lawsuits fan the blame game over Round Fire

  1. mouthpiece March 5, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

    The Calfire report can also be found online

    • Keystonecop March 5, 2017 at 9:37 pm #

      The following are statements taken from the investigation report: SCHOBER told me a SCE vegetation management crew had trimmed the trees near the power lines approximately 2 to 3 weeks ago. He pointed out small piles of tree trimmings that the crew had left. SCHOBER told me there were no problems with the power lines or the electrical service to his knowledge.
      At approximately 2:00 PM, I was contacted by PEREA. PEREA gave me a written statement he had completed at the request of DERR (see attachment #15). After reviewing the written statement, I noticed inconsistencies between his written statement and the interview conducted by DERR. I assigned SMITH to conduct a follow up
      interview with PEREA at his residence. At approximately 2:37 PM, SMITH and GALLAHER interviewed PEREA at his residence.
      During the interview, PEREA located the fire start near Edison Pole #18541 05E, which was the third pole west of 2164 Old Sherwin Road.
      At approximately 7:30 AM the team arrived at the scene to continue the investigation. SMITH examined the burned area where PEREA indicated he saw the fire start. SMITH determined fire indicators were not consistent with a fire start in the area indicated by PEREA the previous day. in the fallen tree, I observed a power line wrapped in a smaller tree that was still standing. Also within the GOA, I observed a small branch with two small burn marks that are inconsistent with the direction of the fire. I place tags six and seven at the burn marks location on the branch. Ranch, he told me, “No”. Perea told me he and Weller were the only one out there the day the fire started. I asked Perea if he saw anyone at Schober’s residence from his residence, he told me, “No”. I asked Perea not to discuss this investigation with anyone, he agreed. Perea told me he has heard stories about how the fire started. I asked Perea what he heard. Perea told me he heard the fire was started by tree’s falling on power lines and arching power lines.
      Sounds fishy to me!!!

  2. wagonrd March 5, 2017 at 6:51 am #

    On the day of the fire, the anemometer on our roof top was registering 90 MPH winds. This wind was shifting from west, east, and south. Even healthy trees with well anchored roots will get knocked down by such fierce winds. Huge chunks of burning stuff was hurtling thru the air and impacting on houses. Any judge or jury who finds SCE or LADWP guilty of wrongdoing is dumb as a New Mexico fence post

  3. mouthpiece March 4, 2017 at 9:51 pm #

    Los Angeles county. You can look it up online

  4. Trouble March 4, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    My personal feeling is Edison has the ability to kill the power lines in events just like this and didnt. You all can take it from there.

  5. Roy March 3, 2017 at 8:07 am #

    This is going to be terrible – no matter how this goes, SCE will have to be super cautious and remove more and more trees. It’s common sense zero and insurance companies and lawyers 1!

    • Pyro Boy March 3, 2017 at 10:05 am #

      Common sense is not building a bunch of homes in a fire trap.

      • sugarmags March 4, 2017 at 9:05 am #

        Care to define ‘fire trap’?

        • Paco March 6, 2017 at 10:58 am #

          Any state west of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains….

  6. sugarmags March 2, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    Insurance companies…can’t just pay out a claim, need to find someone else to fund it. Otherwise it cuts into their massive profits!

    One question, which county were the lawsuits filed in? Fire started in Inyo, houses burned down in Mono, just wondering.


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