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Family ordered to pay $750,000 for Einstein papers lost in fire

July 6, 2011 |  9:31 am

A firefighter from the St. Helena Fire Deptartment looks over the ridge toward smoke from a wildfire at Henry Coe State Park in Santa Clara County on Sept. 5, 2007.

A civil jury has ordered a Santa Clara County family to pay a professor $750,000 for the loss of papers written by famed physicist Albert Einstein that were destroyed in a 2007 wildfire.

San Jose State chemistry professor Dan Straus, whose father was a friend of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, filed the lawsuit after the September 2007 Lick fire destroyed his home and the papers within.

Margaret Pavese, a former teacher, pleaded no contest in 2009 to one misdemeanor count of failing to exercise reasonable care in the disposal of flammable materials to prevent causing an uncontrolled fire.

Authorities said the fire that burned 47,760 acres and destroyed four homes and 20 outbuildings began after Pavese left a 55-gallon metal barrel unattended that she was using to illegally burn paper plates.

The fire is one of the biggest in county history.

The civil suit included Pavese’s husband, Lawrence, and father-in-law, Ernest, saying all three were guilty of general negligence.

Attorney David Spini, who represents Ernest Pavese, told the San Jose Mercury News he planned to seek a new trial on the grounds that $750,000 was an excessive award.

If that fails, Spini said he would appeal the ruling. Margaret Pavese has already paid $200,000 in restitution to fire victims, including about $40,000 to Straus for the loss of his two cabins, an outbuilding and a trailer.

Straus told the Mercury News that one of Einstein’s papers — a poem the physicist wrote to Straus’ parents congratulating them on the birth of their son — survived the fire because it was at Straus' weekend home.


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Photo: A firefighter from St. Helena looks over a ridge toward smoke from the Lick fire in Santa Clara County on Sept. 5, 2007. Credit: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press