As Wildfire Season Begins, Los Angeles Attorney David Lederer Comments on the Intricacies of Wildfire Litigation

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As the summer nears, residents of the Southwest and other wildfire-prone areas of the country are bracing for fire season. Attorney David Lederer of Lederer & Nojima has extensive experience handling wildfire litigation on behalf of plaintiffs and says lawsuits related to wildfires can be particularly complex.

Liable parties must be held responsible whether they intended to start a fire or not.

The first major California wildfire of the season has been contained and its cause has been determined: the Etiwanda fire was caused by an illegal campfire, reports the LA Times. In the May 5, 2014 article "Illegal campfire sparked Etiwanda fire, Forest Service says," LA Times reporter Robert J. Lopez writes that the campfire may have been smoldering for several days before high winds kicked up the embers and ignited nearby brush.

"The Etiwanda fire seems to have been caused by an individual or a small group of individuals' illegal activity though the facts of the case are still forthcoming," says David Lederer of the Los Angeles law firm Lederer & Nojima. "A fire of this size so early in the year may indicate that California has a challenging wildfire season ahead. And, thankfully, no buildings were damaged and no one was seriously injured in this one. But, as the season continues, there is the risk of serious property damage and injuries in other fires. When such unfortunate incidents happen, a law firm experienced with wildfire cases is necessary to ensure victims get treated fairly by liable parties and insurers."

Lederer states that litigation involving a fire caused by an individual may be extremely complex but when "an organization like a public utility, a construction company or other large entity has even partial liability for a destructive wildfire, the investigation can be intricate and negotiations can be combative especially when property damage or injuries are involved."

He goes on to say that "the defendants may be extremely reluctant to accept responsibility for their part in the damage caused. Millions of dollars may be at stake and liable parties may be obstinate. Victims in such cases need a law firm with vast resources , experienced attorneys and skilled investigators to pursue justice against those responsible."

Though lightning is responsible for some wildfires, many are human-caused. For instance, in recent years, some California wildfires have been caused by arsonists, careless construction workers creating sparks near dry brush, irresponsible campers, and poorly maintained electrical lines that have fallen into dry brush. A recent report indicates that, throughout Los Angeles County, many electrical poles are in desperate need of replacement but the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is woefully behind in its maintenance.

In the May 6, 2014 Los Angeles Daily News article, "DWP lagging behind on replacing old power poles; 87,000 have exceeded their lifespan," Mike Reicher states "the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has slipped far behind its schedule to replace aging power poles and other electrical infrastructure, raising questions about the dangers of wildfires, power outages and other consequences from failed equipment." While the DWP is not likely to intentionally set wildfires, their inability to meet their responsibilities puts the public at risk.

"In most wildfire cases, the fires are not intentionally caused. Instead, negligence is often the cause. Liable parties must be held responsible whether they intended to start a fire or not." Lederer mentions a settlement that was announced last year regarding two California fires that were not intentionally ignited. "The Power fire and Whiskey fire in Northern California scorched thousands of acres. No one purposely set the fires but the public utility in the area did not ensure that power lines were an adequate distance from trees. Power lines must be constantly monitored and trees must be regularly trimmed so they do not come into contact with the lines. Dry timber and electrical wiring is a combustible combination."

He refers to a June 6, 2013 press release from the United States Attorney's Office, Eastern District of California. The release indicates that the utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric and the contractors it hired to keep tree branches a safe distance from the electrical lines will pay the government more than $50 million to help restore the damaged forest. Lederer cautions that DWP must becomes more aggressive in replacing and repairing old power poles a tragedy may strike.

"In the Power and Whiskey fire cases, the government was the plaintiff but, often, homes and businesses are destroyed, firefighters and other people are injured. Litigation can become particularly complex when these issues emerge, " Lederer says. "If the area burned is privately owned, has homes or businesses on it, or has commercial value, such as timber for construction, or other features that businesses rely upon for revenue, the need for compensation may be significant. While many of these cases settle out of court, trial is always a distinct possibility."

And Lederer adds that since the wildfire litigation process can go on for years, "law firms with extensive resources are crucial. When the United States government is the plaintiff, they can dedicate massive resources to pressure defendants for a very long time, if necessary, to achieve a fair settlement or verdict. Their resources may be limitless but utility companies, large private corporations and their insurers can also have nearly limitless resources to fight back."

To challenge large utilities or other massive companies, he adds "a law firm like Lederer & Nojima is necessary because we can apply pressure for as long as it takes and we can conduct detailed investigations to determine the truth. We also have highly skilled attorneys to present a compelling case for the best interest of our clients. Lederer & Nojima is a law firm well-equipped for the challenges of wildfire litigation."

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David Lederer
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