Many people assume that wildfires are natural disasters or acts of God – an unavoidable part of living in California. While it is true that environmental conditions such as high heat, severe winds, low humidity and lightning can spark wildfires, some of the most devastating wildfires in California’s history have been caused by human activity, such as utility company carelessness.
If there is evidence that one or more parties contributed to the wildfire that damaged your property, injured you or took a loved one’s life, you may be able to bring a lawsuit against the liable party in pursuit of financial compensation. Discuss your wildfire damage case with the attorneys at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger for more information. We offer free consultations.
Common Causes of California Wildfires
Liability, or financial responsibility, for a wildfire in California depends on who or what caused the fire. If an individual or entity could have prevented the wildfire but failed to do so, this is known as negligence. An electric company failing to replace an old or faulty piece of equipment despite a foreseeable risk of a spark that could ignite a fire is an example of negligence. If negligence causes a wildfire, the negligent party can be held liable for victims’ associated losses and damages.
Some of the most common causes of wildfires in California are:
- Dry conditions
- Flammable vegetation
- Human activity
- Faulty electrical poles and powerlines
- Improper use of equipment
- Poorly maintained vehicles
- Unattended campfires
- Debris or yard-waste fires
- Discarded cigarette butts
It takes an official investigation to determine the cause of most wildfires in California. Once the cause of a wildfire has been confirmed, those impacted by the fire may have the right to file lawsuits against the at-fault party. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) faced multiple lawsuits in 2018 for faulty utility equipment and negligent practices that caused the Camp Fire – California’s deadliest wildfire on record. Identifying the cause of the fire is one of the first steps in determining liability for damage.
Third-Party Liability Claim for Wildfire Damage
Filing a lawsuit for wildfire damage against one or more parties based on negligence, carelessness or recklessness is what is known as a third-party liability claim. Many different parties could act as defendants in a third-party wildlife damage lawsuit, depending on the cause of the fire. These parties include:
- Electric company
- Utility company
- Another business or company
- Private property owner
- Government agency
- Product manufacturer
- Individual (accident or arson)
To obtain financial compensation in a third-party liability suit, you or your attorney must establish negligence based on a preponderance of the evidence. This is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant more likely than not started the wildfire. An attorney can help you collect evidence of liability in a wildfire claim, such as expert testimony and investigative reports. You may not need to prove negligence, however, if you choose a different legal option to hold someone liable, such as inverse condemnation.
What Is Inverse Condemnation?
Under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, government agencies have the right of eminent domain. This is the right to acquire or use private property for the purpose of economic development or public improvement. Under this rule, a government agency or utility company can take private property for its own uses, as long as it provides just compensation to the private property owner. This is a process known as condemnation.
If the government or utility company damages the property used – including causing wildfire damage – the owner of the property can file a lawsuit in pursuit of financial compensation. This type of suit is known as inverse condemnation, as it is brought by the owner of the property rather than the government agency or utility company. An inverse condemnation suit can be brought against both a publicly owned and privately owned electric utility company.
The rules of inverse condemnation allow for the doctrine of strict liability to be applied to these lawsuits. This means that the defendant can be found liable for wildfire damage even in the absence of fault and if the damage was unforeseeable. If your property in California was damaged by a wildfire caused by a power pole or powerline, therefore, you may not need to establish that the electric company is at fault to be eligible for financial compensation through an inverse condemnation claim.
Insurance Coverage for Wildfire Damage
Even without knowing the cause of a wildfire or having proof of negligence, you may be entitled to insurance coverage for wildfire damage to your home, business or property. If you have homeowners or renter’s insurance in California, you most likely have coverage for fire damage. Filing an insurance claim immediately after a wildfire could result in payment for the following losses, paid up to the maximum on your policy:
- The costs of repairing or rebuilding your home
- Cost of damage repairs for the roof, plumbing, water system, etc.
- Other structure coverage, such as a damaged garage or shed
- Construction materials and labor costs
- Replacement of lost or damaged belongings, including sentimental property
- Repairs to a damaged yard, landscape or pool
- Temporary/alternate housing while your home is repaired
As a business owner, your business insurance should pay for similar losses to your business, in addition to money lost in business interruptions and lost revenue. If you have a condo insurance policy, fire damage within the walls of your condo is covered by your policy. The homeowners association should cover any damage outside of your condo. If you have renter’s insurance, this will also cover damage caused by wildfires, including your personal possessions and additional living expenses.
Consult With a Wildfire Attorney Today
If you suffered property damage from a wildfire anywhere in California, including damage from the Dixie Fire, find out how Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger can help. We have experience representing individuals, families and businesses in wildfire lawsuits. We have the ability to go up against any defendant in pursuit of fair financial compensation, including a major corporation or electric company. Our attorneys will guide you through the legal process while protecting your rights and best interests. We share your goal of wanting to hold those who start wildfires accountable. Request your free consultation with one of our California wildfire attorneys today.