Nevada reaches tentative settlement in wildfire lawsuit
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The state of Nevada has reached a tentative settlement with dozens of homeowners and insurance companies that filed an $80 million negligence lawsuit after a fire destroyed 24 homes when strong winds reignited a smoldering prescribed burn south of Reno in 2016, lawyers told a judge Thursday.
The lawyers for Nevada and more than 60 plaintiffs who sued the state said the state Board of Examiners plans to vote on the unspecified settlement agreement June 12.
A trial to determine the amount of damages had been scheduled for December after a jury found the Nevada Division of Forestry guilty of gross negligence and liable for losses last year.
William Jeanney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he can’t discuss details. But he told reporters after a brief court appearance Thursday it’s a “good deal” for everyone involved given the circumstances. He credited Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford for helping reach the agreement.
“I’m pleased with what we were able to accomplish,” Jeanney said. “It was not easy. The state was looking at a very difficult damage value. ... A tough puzzle to solve.”
A Washoe County District Court jury found the state liable in August for the loss of two dozen homes and 17 other buildings when the prescribed fire raged out of control in the Washoe Valley north of Carson City on land owned by the University of Nevada, Reno, a co-defendant in the lawsuit.
Dennis Hof, a prominent Nevada brothel owner who died last year while running for the state legislature, was among the plaintiffs who lost homes.
The fire burned more than 3.5 square miles (9 sq. kilometers) in October 2016 along the Sierra’s eastern front just east of Lake Tahoe.
An independent investigation concluded in February 2017 the fire was caused by the ill-advised attempt to burn a large, wind-prone area with insufficient staff. Joe Freeland, the state forester and fire warden, later resigned.
The state argued during the trial last year the fire was an unfortunate accident and that firefighters did everything correctly during the burn intended to clear out overgrown vegetation to prevent future wildfires.
Jeanney said Sisolak and Ford — both Democrats who were elected in November — were significantly more cooperative than the previous administration under Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt, both Republicans.
“There was not a reasonable, legitimate approach by the prior administration to try to resolve this case,” he said. “We had to go into a courtroom and prove that they were grossly negligent.”
“We finally had an administration that was willing to listen and reach out to help,” he said.
Jeanney said the original lawsuit didn’t seek a specific amount of damages but “suggested cumulatively all the homeowners may have suffered damages somewhere around $80 million to $90 million.”
He said the settlement largely was reached during a three-day mediation session last month aimed at reaching a deal by May 31 to keep the case from going to trial.
Washoe District Judge Scott Freeman set a June 27 hearing to formalize the settlement contingent on approval by the Board of Examiners. It then would go to a state magistrate to divide up payouts to damaged property owners, Jeanney said.
This story corrects an earlier version to show 24 homes were destroyed, not 23.