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.