Methow Valley News file photo by Don Nelson The Rising Eagle Road Fire broke out on Aug. 1, 2014, and spread rapidly.

Methow Valley News file photo by Don Nelson
The Rising Eagle Road Fire broke out on Aug. 1, 2014, and spread rapidly.

Action filed by insurance companies asserts blame for fire

By Marcy Stamper

A Mazama couple has filed a response denying all allegations made in a lawsuit brought against them by seven insurance companies that paid claims to cover property losses in the 2014 Rising Eagle Road Fire.

The response was filed by the couple’s attorney in Okanogan County Superior Court on July 22.

Other than the most basic facts in the case — identity, marital status, address — David Ford and Nancy Leland, through their attorney Grant Lingg, say they “lack sufficient knowledge to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations … and therefore deny the same.”

The lawsuit filed by the insurance companies on behalf of policyholders asserts that Ford and Leland caused the fire through their alleged negligence in maintaining a utility trailer.

Lingg’s response for Ford and Leland admits that Leland was towing a trailer on the day the fire started, but denies that it was not road-worthy. It admits that the right hub seized, but denies that Leland continued to tow the trailer with the seized hub until the tire and wheel were ground flat.

The response completely denies the allegations that the defendants failed to properly maintain and inspect the trailer and that this alleged negligence caused the fire.

Lingg wrote that other allegations in the lawsuit — such as an assertion that the defendants had a statutory duty to exercise reasonable care in ownership and maintenance of the vehicle and trailer — are legal conclusions that do not have to be answered.

The 13 named plaintiffs and “various insureds” may have contributed to their losses by failure to mitigate or minimize damages or through negligence, Lingg asserts. These injuries and damages may also have been caused “by third parties over whom Defendants have no control,” including the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), according to the response.

Lingg’s response also states that some damages may have been caused by an act of God and that some evidence in the case may have been spoiled.

The response asks that the lawsuit be dismissed and legal fees be awarded to Ford and Leland.

They are still looking for witnesses in the case, said Lingg by email.

DNR conclusion

A March 2015 investigation by 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. The investigation said the dragging wheel sent superheated metal flakes onto the side of the road, where they ignited dry vegetation.

Ford and Leland were sued in subrogation, in which insurance companies pay claims and then try to recover the money by suing the people they believe are responsible, said Lingg.

Washington state prohibits individuals (and their lawyers) from suing an insurance company. As a result, they have to sue the individual who caused the loss — not that person’s insurer — according to another attorney involved in the case who declined to be identified.

Most insurance policies have a clause that permits an insurance company that has paid a claim to pursue the people it believes are responsible for the loss without consulting policyholders, 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.