CVN screenshot of plaintiffs attorney William Jeanney delivering his opening statement
Reno, NV - Opening statements began Wednesday in Nevada state court in the first trial over claims that the Nevada Division of Forestry and the University of Nevada are responsible for over $80 million in property damage after a prescribed burn accidentally blazed out of control, consuming 23 homes and 19 other buildings.
53 plaintiffs who suffered losses in the fire, which destroyed a number of posh mansions, accuse state workers of failing to properly monitor the blaze in 2016 despite high winds. Their complaints, consolidated into a single proceeding before Washoe County Court Judge Scott Freeman, argue an immunity clause limiting the amount of money the state owes to homeowners could unfairly deny them adequate compensation for the fire’s extensive damage.
Plaintiffs attorney William Jeanney of Bradley, Drendel & Jeanney argued in his opening statement that state officials failed to follow proper monitoring procedures, and that they didn’t ensure the fire was extinguished before leaving the burn site despite a risk of high winds.
“The fire is abandoned. It’s not out,” Jeanney said, according to Courtroom View Network's webcast of the trial. He described how winds of 85 miles per hour kicked up cinders that began an out-of-control blaze lasting five days.
Jeanney did not mention a specific amount in damages, but the amount at stake was sufficient to rope numerous insurance companies into the sprawling litigation, including Farmers, Travelers, Allstate and Liberty Mutual.
The NDF began the fire as part of a wildfire prevention program to burn out overgrown vegetation. The burn took place on land owned by the University of Nevada, which also planned to conduct a study of the fire’s environmental impact.
Both defendants maintain they took all reasonable steps to monitor and control the fire, characterizing the unusually high wind gust that spread the cinders as as a freak accident.
They maintain firefighters left the scene due to safety concerns after verifying the burn was extinguished.
“We were careful, we were thoughtful, we were effective,” Steve Shevorski of the Nevada Attorney General’s office told jurors during his opening statement. “We take your safety as the citizens of this great state very seriously.”
Jeanney and his co-counsel have to convince the judge or jury that the state’s actions amounted to gross negligence in order to overcome the cap on damages a Nevada state agency can be held liable for.
The trial before Judge Freeman is expected to take two weeks to complete. The full proceedings are being webcast live and recorded gavel-to-gavel by CVN.
The consolidated case is captioned In Re Little Valley Fire Litigation, case number CV17-00225, in Nevada’s Second Judicial District Court.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org