File photo by Laurelle Walsh The Rising Eagle Road Fire, which started on Aug. 1, 2014, burned 579 acres and destroyed 10 houses.

File photo by Laurelle Walsh
The Rising Eagle Road Fire, which started on Aug. 1, 2014, burned 579 acres and destroyed 10 houses.

Defendants deny responsibility for fire, prepare response

By Marcy Stamper

Seven insurance companies that paid claims to cover property and vehicle losses in the 2014 Rising Eagle Road Fire have sued a Mazama couple whom they allege caused the fire through their alleged negligence in maintaining a utility trailer.

The plaintiffs, who collectively insure 11 property owners, filed the lawsuit against David Ford and Nancy Leland in Okanogan County Superior Court on May 23. There is no dollar amount mentioned in the lawsuit.

A March 2015 investigation by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into the fire concluded it was caused when a wheel on an improperly maintained utility trailer owned by Ford and Leland stopped rotating and dragged on the pavement while Leland was towing it on Highway 20 between Winthrop and Twisp. The investigation said the dragging wheel sent superheated metal flakes onto the side of the road, where they ignited dry vegetation. The light-duty trailer was empty at the time.

Ford and Leland were sued in subrogation, in which automobile and homeowners’ insurance companies pay claims and then try to recover the money by suing the people they believe are responsible, according to Grant Lingg, the attorney for Ford and Leland.

In situations such as this with multiple claims, it is very common for a lawsuit to be filed as part of determining the total number of claims and extent of damages and applicable insurance coverage, according to another attorney involved in the case who declined to be identified.

Washington state prohibits individuals (and their lawyers) from suing an insurance company unless the person is insured by that company (and therefore has a contractual relationship with it). As a result, they have to sue the individual who caused the loss, not that person’s insurer, said the attorney.

Typically, when the statute of limitations expires (generally considered to be either two or three years, depending on the damages involved), insurance companies and attorneys sit down and sort out the claims and available coverage.

The attorney said there will probably be other, similar lawsuits filed to recover damages. The vast majority of these cases are settled before coming to trial, said the attorney.

The complaint also states that Ford and Leland owned a rafting company and that they were transporting a raft as part of their business, but said the company was unknown to the plaintiff and called it “Doe Company No. 1.”

Lingg said that the couple do not operate a rafting company. The DNR investigation said they were on an outing with family members.

Lingg said the defendants are preparing a response and do not believe Ford and Leland started the fire. From a scientific and technical standpoint, they don’t believe that any sparks generated by the wheel rim dragging along the pavement could have had enough heat or mass to travel from the roadway to the origin point to start a fire, he said.

Lingg is also pursuing accounts of “people out there, immediately before the fire, spinning wheelies and messing around on the hill where the fire started.” He said he intends to subpoena a local online bulletin board that had published posts that included these accounts. The posts were immediately removed from the bulletin board, he said.

Lawsuits like this are typically filed by insurance companies without explicit consultation with policyholders, since most policies have a clause that permits an insurance company that has paid a claim to pursue the people they believe caused the loss, said Lingg.

The Rising Eagle Road Fire started on Aug. 1, 2014, and burned 579 acres, almost all private land, and destroyed 10 houses and 14 other structures.