Two years and 365 days after the July 15, 2013, start of the Mountain Fire that destroyed several Hill homes and structures, and evacuated thousands of residents, the federal government has sued Tarek M. Al-Shawaf, and James and Donna Nowlin of Mountain Center for in excess of $24 million in damages. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California on Thursday, July 14, with one day to spare before the three-year statute of limitations period would have run out.
The complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles brings five claims for relief labeled negligence, violation of California Pubic Resources Code section 44345, violation of several California Health and Safety Code and Civil Code sections, trespass by fire, and interest and penalties. It also seeks double and triple damages under California Civil Code section 3346, which provides “[f]or wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another, or removal thereof, the measure of damages is three times such sum as would compensate for the actual detriment ...”
The federal government alleges fire suppression costs exceeding $15 million and natural resource damages exceeding $9 million, along with emergency rehabilitation costs in excess of $300,000. The complaint specifies that the natural resource damages include “the costs of rehabilitation, restoration, and reforestation of the burned areas, wrongful injury to the United States’ trees, loss of timber and vegetation, loss of habitat, environmental damages, soil damages, loss of use, loss of scenic views, and loss of aesthetic values.”
As to the cause of the fire, the complaint alleges that “[i]nvestigators determined that the Mountain Fire ignited in a plastic electrical junction box on the Gibraltar West property. The junction box housed electrical wires running from the electrical panel of the main house on the property to a water well on the property … The junction box’s lid was warped, not properly secured, and ajar. As a result, an electrical discharge inside the box shot sparks and hot material out of the box and onto dry ground vegetation below.”
The complaint further alleged that, under California law, the defendants owed “non-delegable and statutory duties to properly inspect and maintain their electrical equipment, electrical wires, and electrical junction boxes to ensure that they were safe, properly secured, and clear from dangerous conditions.”
Gibraltar West is the name of Al-Shawaf’s property in Mountain Center. Al-Shawaf admitted in response to Cal Fire’s lawsuit filed a year ago that the Nowlins were his employees on the property.
The complaint alleges that on Feb. 17, 2016, the United States demanded that the defendants pay the costs and damages incurred but the defendants “have not paid any part of the sum demanded by the United States.”