Corral Fire victims sue state

Last November's Corral Fire started at an area known as The Cave. Fire victims say had the state done a better job policing the area, the fire that destroyed 53 homes would not have occurred. Photo by Melonie Magruder/TMT

The suit says the “state breached its duty by failing to take appropriate measures to eliminate the dangerous condition” contributing to the fire.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

A lawsuit was filed last week on Wednesday in the Los Angeles Superior Court against the state on behalf of 96 residents who lost their homes or incurred property damage in last November’s Corral Fire. The suit alleges the California Department of Parks of Recreation ignored years of complaints by neighbors about late-night parties and bonfires taking place at the top of Corral Canyon in an area of Malibu Creek State Park known as The Cave.

The suit does not request a specific amount of money.

Earlier this year, fire victims and insurance companies filed approximately $513.2 million worth of claims against the state regarding the Corral Fire. All the claims were rejected by a state board that said the matter should be handled in a courtroom. The insurance companies are not involved in this suit.

The Corral Fire burned 4,900 acres and destroyed 53 homes, while damaging 37 others. It began in the early hours of Nov. 24 when an illegal campfire in The Cave got out of control. Five suspects have been charged with causing the fire. One confessed earlier this month to his involvement in the fire.

None of the suspects are named in the suit. Malibu attorney James Devitt, who is from one of three law firms handling the case, said this is because, “You learn the first year in law school never to sue anyone who doesn’t have any money.”

The complaint was written by four lawyers from Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, which is known for its success in the famous “Erin Brockovich” environmental case. The complaint reads, “The state had the duty to maintain the park in a safe condition and a duty to eliminate any known dangerous condition that existed on the public property. The state breached its duty by failing to take appropriate measures to eliminate the dangerous condition.”

State Parks spokesperson Roy Stearns said on Tuesday he could not comment on the specifics of the suit because the state had not been formally served with the complaint. That was expected to take place later this week. But Stearns did say it was unfair to blame the fire on State Parks.

“We were listening and taking action regarding the concerns of the residents by patrolling the area more, increasing the amount of times we were clearing the area of people who were there doing illegal activity,” Stearns said. “And we increased the citations for those who had illegal fires.”

The fire started a little after 3 a.m. State Parks officials said last year the last patrol took place at 10 p.m., and no illegal activity was seen at that time. When asked why there is not a permanent patrol at The Cave area, Stearns said, “We don’t have enough peace officers to stand near every place where somebody might decide to throw a party and do something illegal.”

Malibu Realtor Paul Grisanti, who lost his home in the fire and is a plaintiff in the suit along with his wife, Sara, said this week that State Parks handles the property in a way that would not be tolerated if it were done by a private citizen.

“State Parks has been operating that park at the top of the canyon under a system of benign neglect for years, and they have been notified many, many times by homeowners that it was being utilized for parties and fires,” Grisanti said. “And their response was ‘we don’t have the personnel.’ And if you or I had a property where we allowed people to have drunken parties and we responded that way to our neighbors, they would probably have no problem suing us for failing to take care of our property and endangering their lives.”

Most of the destruction in the fire took place in unincorporated county land. But the county was not named in this suit. The city had been blamed by some people for delaying evacuations because a bridge was under construction at the bottom of Corral Canyon on city land. But the city was also not named in the suit.

“We were not convinced the city was at fault,” attorney Devitt said.

Devitt said he expects this will be a tough case.

“We hope to prevail at trial. Whoever does not succeed at trial will likely file an appeal. And unless there is a state constitutional issue and it goes to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal is where the final decision will be made.”

-Kimberly Kilgore contributed to this article

Criminal case continues

Earlier this month one of the five men accused of starting the fire, 28-year-old Brian David Franks, changed his plea from not guilty to no contest on a felony charge of recklessly causing a fire. He became the first suspect in the case to admit participation. Franks will be sentenced on Nov. 3. Prosecutors are expected to ask for five years probation and 300 hours community service.

Also on Nov. 3, Culver City residents Eric Matthew Ullman, 19, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 20, will appear in court for their arraignment. The two other suspects, Los Angeles residents Brian Alan Anderson, 23, and William Thomas Coppock, 24, are due in court Dec. 5 for a preliminary hearing. They were scheduled to have the hearing last week, but it was continued.