A Seattle attorney representing a growing number of land owners who suffered property damage in the Taylor Bridge wildfire said he’ll soon add a lawsuit against the state of Washington claiming government employee negligence.
A lawsuit filed in Kittitas County Superior Court on Oct. 15 against two West Side construction firms was amended Nov. 1 in filings by attorney Michael Helgren. The number of plaintiffs has increased from 17 to 58.
“There will certainly be more added in the near future,” said Helgren, part of the law firm of McNaul Ebel Nawrot and Helgren PLLC of Seattle.
Helgren said he plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of his clients against the state claiming a state Department of Transportation inspector at the Taylor Bridge construction site allegedly acted negligently Aug. 13 in his duties and in reporting the fire.
The 23,500-acre wildfire between Cle Elum and Ellensburg started along state Route 10 at Taylor Road where the bridge deck was being replaced, according to state fire incident officials.
Helgren said state DOT officials, including an inspector overseeing two West Side contractors at the work site, allegedly failed to require certain fire suppression practices to be carried out at the time of the fire.
He declined to give details about the fire suppression practices involved.
Helgren added that the state inspector calling in the fire gave 911 the wrong location of the blaze which allegedly contributed to a 27-minute delay in emergency crews reaching the site.
No depositions from witnesses have yet been taken in the case, Helgren said, indicating his allegations against the state have come from an investigation carried out by his law firm and studying 911 audio from the Aug. 13 fire call.
State Assistant Attorney General Ian Bauer, part of the legal team representing state government in the case, was contacted about the allegations and said it is not appropriate for him to comment on pending litigation.
“Our review of the facts, however, leads us to very different conclusions than those reached by Mr. Helgren,” Bauer said.
The Attorney General’s Office has hired Spokane attorney Andy Bohrnsen to act as a special assistant Attorney General in the case, Bauer said.
A WSDOT inspector working on the bridge first called 911 at 1:19 p.m. on Aug. 13 and said the fire was on state Route 10 “at milepost 90 on the bridge,” according to a Daily Record review of the 911 recording. In a second 911 call, the inspector reported it was at milepost 100 on the bridge. On the sixth call, the 911 dispatcher said fire crews were at milepost 100 and no one was there. The fire was at milepost 90.
Helgren said his clients’ claims against contractors Conway Construction Co. of Ridgefield and Rainier Steel Inc. of Auburn have not changed in the Nov. 1 amended court filing. The state DOT hired Conway Construction as the prime contractor for the bridge work.
With 41 plaintiffs added to the lawsuit on Nov. 1, the two firms have another 20 days starting Nov. 1 to formally answer the complaint, Helgren said.
Experts are now examining his clients’ property that was destroyed or damaged by the fire to develop a figure for damages sought at trial, he said, if the case comes to that.
“There will be many other lawsuits as a result of the fire,” Helgren said, including insurance companies seeking reimbursement for damage claim payments and the state seeking payments for the cost to fight the fire.
He said two other law firms in the region are working on lawsuits, to his knowledge.
The companies continue to decline any comment on the lawsuit. The only comment made earlier by Conway officials was that the company was cooperating fully with state investigators looking into the cause of the fire that blackened 37 square miles and destroyed 61 homes or cabins.
Officials of the state Department of Natural Resources said the investigation into the fire’s cause is continuing and said it could take an unspecified number of months to complete.