Subrogation Claim Alleges Wildland Bulldozer Destroyed Well

An insurer who paid $52,000 in damages to a California couple whose well was destroyed by a bulldozer creating a fire line, has filed suit against the United States Department of Agriculture, Cleveland National Forest, and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The California Fair Plan Association filed suit earlier this year in San Diego County Superior Court. The case was removed to US District Court last week.

The Fair Plan filed suit under its right of subrogation, having paid its insured’s, Karen and Robert Wood, $52,791.59 as a result of damages during the Valley Fire. As explained in the complaint:

  • On or about September 9, 2020, a wildfire incident occurred, also known as then Valley Fire in an area close to the subject property of Plaintiffs Insureds.
  • The fire loss incident that occurred on or about September 9, 2020, continued spreading on a course in the direction of Plaintiffs Insureds’ property and land/water easement where the insureds’ water well was located.
  • During the fire loss incident, Defendants, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION, and DOES 1-30, Inclusive, administered the use of a bulldozer to create a fire break in the vegetation.
  • The subject bulldozer, while creating the fire break, bulldozed into the path of the land/water easement and ran over Plaintiffs Insureds’ water well, destroying the water pump, its accessory piping, and its electrical conduit (herein referred to as “subject water well”) and resulted in extensive losses and damages.
  • Experts, upon a thorough inspection of the fire loss incident, determined that when the subject bulldozer ran over the subject water well, the pump motor fell into the well, got entangled in tree roots and was prevented from being recovered.
  • Also, the accessory piping and its electrical conduit also were destroyed and needed replacement with a new well pump, power pole and electrical hookup.
  • Additionally, new construction of a well, in the location of the original well, was not accessible by rigs, so the new well construction had to be drilled in an adjacent area in proximity to Plaintiffs Insureds’ subject property.
  • Additionally, the Defendants, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION, and DOES 1-30, Inclusive, had not provided a spotter or person to walk in front of the bulldozer operator to advise of any obstacles while creating the fire break.
  • There was room to adjust the path slightly to the South in order to avoid the destruction of the well. The equipment operators caused the damage to the well and as a result, the owners were forced to incur significant expense in bringing in temporary water immediately following the damage to the well and replacing the well.

The suit alleges inverse condemnation, a premises liability claim sounding in negligence, trespass, private nuisance, public nuisance, and a violation of the California vehicle code. Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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