A judge ruled Monday, July 29, that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Sierra Pacific Industries was responsible for causing the 2007 Moonlight Fire.
SPI announced that Judge Leslie C. Nichols, who was sitting by appointment in Plumas County Superior Court, dismissed the lawsuit brought by CalFire. CalFire and several private plaintiffs were seeking damages against SPI and other defendants.
The state had alleged that a logger employed by SPI had negligently started the Moonlight Fire on private land Sept. 3, 2007. The fire then spread to the Plumas National Forest and other private holdings.
“This is a significant victory for SPI and the other defendants in the case,” SPI spokesman Mark Pawlicki said. “We knew all along that the evidence did not support the state’s claim that our contractor started the fire.”
Opening arguments for the jury trial had been scheduled for Monday, Aug. 5, in Plumas County Superior Court in Portola.
In July 2012, SPI agreed to pay the federal government about $122 million for damages caused by the fire.
The settlement was believed to be the largest amount ever recovered by the U.S. government for damages caused by a forest fire.
According to the terms of the settlement, SPI agreed to pay $55 million in cash and turn over 22,500 acres of land.
SPI has alleged that the government’s fire investigators conducted a faulty investigation and were not able to demonstrate the true origin of the fire.
“Although CalFire employees are highly regarded for their professionalism and integrity, unfortunately the Moonlight investigations did not live up to that standard,” Pawlicki said.
The government’s investigators in the Moonlight Fire alleged that SPI’s 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 that requires a series of procedures to be followed during logging operations.
However, Judge Nichols ruled that the state did not have evidence to support those claims.
Nichols reportedly reviewed more than 800 pages of legal briefing and deposition testimony, and heard evidence on the case for three days, before deciding to dismiss the case and rule in favor of all the defendants.
Nichols reportedly concluded CalFire could not provide enough evidence to justify submitting the matter to a jury.
In contrast, a federal court ruled in July 2012 that SPI could be liable for damages in the case even if its operators did not start the fire. The decision led to the $122 million settlement.
In a press release from SPI, the forest products company wrote, “Overall, the state spent several years, approximately $10 million tax-payer 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.”
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