CA Fire Department Seeks to Recoup Cost of Rescue from Victims

The Orange County Fire Authority is seeking to recoup part of the costs of rescuing two teens from the mountains of Trabuco Canyon earlier this year through a victim’s rights law.

Nic Cendoya, 19, and Kyndall Jack, 18, became lost in the mountains for several days following Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013. Their predicament was apparently compounded (if not caused) by their admitted use of hallucinogenic drugs.  Drugs were also found in Cendoya’s vehicle.

Orange County Fire Authority allegedly spent $55,000 in manpower and overtime on the search and rescue effort that ultimately led to the successful rescue of the duo. OCFA’s total costs of the rescue was actually closer to $160,000.

Besides OCFA’s expenses, a volunteer searcher, Nick Papageorge, 20, was injured during the search. He fell some 110 feet and suffered severe injuries with over $350,000 in medical bills to date.

An outdated California law permitted emergency organizations to recoup the costs of search and rescue efforts, but the law expired in 1999 through a sunset provision. Undeterred, OCFA has opted for a novel approach: to file a restitution claim against Cendoya under the state victim’s compensation law.

According to OCFA Division Chief Kris Concepcion “We’re asking for restitution of the $55,000 we incurred in rescuing Nic Cendoya. The reason we feel we’re entitled to it is we’re arguing OCFA is a victim under Marsy’s Law.” Marcy’s Law is also known as the California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008.

Under Marsy’s Law, the California Constitution Article I, § 28, Section (b) guarantees victims with the certain enumerated rights, including the right:

13.       To restitution.

  1. It is the unequivocal intention of the People of the State of California that all persons who suffer losses as a result of criminal activity shall have the right to seek and secure restitution from the persons convicted of the crimes causing the losses they suffer.

  2. Restitution shall be ordered from the convicted wrongdoer in every case, regardless of the sentence or disposition imposed, in which a crime victim suffers a loss.

  3. All monetary payments, monies, and property collected from any person who has been ordered to make restitution shall be first applied to pay the amounts ordered as restitution to the victim.

Because Cendoya was charged in connection with his possession and use of drugs, the OCFA considers itself to be a victim of his criminal conduct. It is an interesting theory. It would certainly be a much easier case for OCFA if California simply reinstated the search and rescue reimbursement law, but nonetheless it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Incidentally, a number of headlines are stating that OCFA has filed a civil lawsuit against the victims. My reading of the information that is publically available suggests it is not a separate lawsuit but rather that OCFA is seeking to have the court handling Cendoya’s criminal case order restitution pursuant to Marsy’s Law. Any California attorneys out there – please feel free to set the record straight.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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