Railroad to pay $102 million to settle lawsuit over Calif. wildfire

Chris Rizo Jul. 23, 2008, 10:25am

McGregor Scott

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-Union Pacific Railroad Co. has agreed to pay a $102 million settlement for a 52,000-acre wildfire in the Plumas and Lassen national forests that was believed to be sparked by its workers.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad agreed to settle claims against it after U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell Jr. in Sacramento ruled against it in February.

Damrell ruled the U.S. government could seek damages for the lost market value of burned trees as well as seek reimbursement for the cost of fighting the fire. He said if the case went to a jury, the panel could also consider the loss of wildlife and public recreation areas.

"The forests' use for recreation and scenic enjoyment was also sorely impacted," Damrell wrote. "Much of the devastated areas involved old growth forests, designated wilderness and trees that were hundreds of years old. The damage to the soil, according to plaintiff, may take hundreds of years to rebuild, if ever."

The judge's ruling is "sending a message that their negligence in setting a fire has consequences," U.S. Associate Attorney General Kevin O'Connor told reporters Tuesday.

Officials determined that sparks from welders repairing tracks caused the blaze, which cost $22 million to contain.

"We want those individuals or corporations operating lawfully in our national forests to be on notice," said U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott.

"We're paying attention and very focused about regaining, not just (fire) suppression costs, but lost resources to the country."

Scott said the settlement shows the federal government will aggressively pursue parties it believes to be negligent.

"It will provide solid ground to pursue earlier resolutions to these cases," Scott said. "The law is on our side now and it provides motivation for our worthy opponents to settle as early as possible."

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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