Appellate court rejects Corral Fire suit

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Fire victims’ attorneys plan to petition the State Supreme Court.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

A Court of Appeal panel last week rejected the lawsuit by victims of the November 2007 Corral Fire that alleged the state was responsible for not securing the parkland where the blaze originated. The fire victims’ attorneys plan to petition the State Supreme Court to hear the case. They have also contacted Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office about a possible settlement.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of nearly 100 people who lost their homes or suffered other damage in the fire. The three-justice panel unanimously upheld last year’s trial court dismissal of the suit. The blaze was ignited after a bonfire got out of control at The Cave, a notorious hangout at the top of Corral Canyon in Malibu Creek State Park. The suit alleged a gate should have been erected at the state park boundary to prevent night access to the park by car or foot, and that the ability for people to physically enter the cave created a dangerous situation.

“Barring the entrance to the cave might have prevented third parties from building a bonfire inside the cave, but it would not have prevented them from building a bonfire outside the cave, thereby presenting the same (or even greater) risk of a brush fire,” wrote Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein in the ruling that received concurrence from Associate Justices Nora M. Manella and Steven C. Suzukawa.

Epstein further wrote, “Similarly, blocking nearby vehicular access with a gate might have impeded entry from that particular location, but it would not have prevented individuals from entering the park or from bringing firewood and alcohol into the park.”

Scott Palamar, who lost his home in the fire, wrote in an e-mail to The Malibu Times that it is important for everybody, not just for the Corral Fire victims, that this case turn in his favor with a reversal by the Supreme Court.

“If this cast is lost, it could well set a precedent preventing citizens from filing claims against the state or other government entities for negligence resulting in loss of property, “ he wrote.

The Supreme Court hears only a small fraction of the cases it is offered.

Jay Devitt, one of several attorneys for the fire victims, said the lawyers have contacted the Attorney General’s Office about a possible settlement. When asked if officials from that office appeared interested in a settlement, he said, “I wouldn’t describe it that way.”

Roy Stearns, spokesperson for the State Department of Parks and Recreation, declined to give a statement on the ruling.

“We are going to withhold comment because this may be appealed and so we will wait for the final outcome before we render comment,” he said.

When asked about what improvements have been made on patrolling the area since the fire, Stearns said, “As we have said before, we continue to patrol as best we can with the resources we have to protect the safety of the public.”

Five young men were charged with starting the fire that destroyed more than 50 homes and injured six firefighters. Brian David Franks, 29, in 2008 agreed to a plea bargain in which he was sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours community service. Brian Alan Anderson, 24, and William Thomas Coppock, 25, two months ago pleaded no contest to felony charges of recklessly starting a fire causing injury and causing an inhabited structure. They will face at least a year in county jail.

Anderson and Coppock on June 9 began a 90-day jail term and evaluation period. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan M. Speer said that during the three-month period, psychologists, probation officials and other professionals would evaluate the two to determine how much jail time they will serve after their next court appearance. The two will be sentenced Sept. 9. Favorable evaluations would mean a minimum of 365 days in jail, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Frances Young told the Times.

The two other defendants, Eric Matthew Ullman, 20, and Dean Allen Lavorante, 21, have not entered pleas. They will also appear in court on Sept. 9. They are facing misdemeanor charges.