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Court upholds $28.8 million penalty in Angeles National Forest fire

June 29, 2012 | 12:39 pm

A Los Angeles County firefighter cuts a fire line at the Copper fire along San Francisquito Canyon Road north of Saugas in 2002.

A federal appeals court upheld a $28.8 million jury verdict Friday against a construction firm blamed for causing a 2002 wildfire that burned roughly 18,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the award was “not grossly excessive” and based on sufficient evidence of environmental damage from the blaze that was ignited by a welder's sparks.

A jury had found CB&I Constructors Inc. liable for starting the Copper fire and agreed the company should pay $7.6 million for fire suppression, emergency mitigation and resource protection. The company did not contest that award.

But the jury also found that the company should pay an additional $28.8 million for “intangible environmental damage,” prompting CB&I to appeal. “Based on the testimony and reports describing the fire’s extensive damage to the National Forest — including impacts to public use, harm to animal habitats, soils, plant life, and the California Red-Legged Frog and the destruction of [an] historic mining camp — we agree with the district court that sufficient evidence supported the jury’s award of intangible environmental damages,” Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for the court.

The fire was sparked by machinery during construction of water storage tanks on private land about half a mile from the forest. CB&I and a company it worked for failed to take fire prevention precautions, including clearing brush, regularly watering the dry vegetation or maintaining a fire watch, the court said. Experts predicted at the time that it would take the forest as long as 25 years to recover.

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-- Maura Dolan

Photo: A Los Angeles County firefighter cuts a fire line at the Copper fire along San Francisquito Canyon Road north of Saugas in 2002. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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