YAKIMA -- In what could be among the first of many lawsuits, a dozen Taylor Bridge Fire victims have sued a state contractor and subcontractor working on the bridge where fire officials said the fire started.
Authorities who managed the fire, which burned more than 23,000 acres and destroyed 61 homes, said it was started Aug. 13 by construction work, possibly welding. But they have not said anyone was at fault for the blaze.
The state Department of Natural Resources is still investigating exactly how the fire started, a process that could take several more months, department spokesman Bryan Flint said Wednesday.
The lawsuit alleges that the general contractor, Conway Construction, and the subcontractor, Rainier Steel Inc., didn't take the proper steps to prevent or contain a fire started by their work.
The attorney who filed the suit Monday in Kittitas County Superior Court, Mike Helgren, said he is confident about its chances even if the state investigation is not finished.
"I'm very bullish about the case," he said.
Plaintiffs include property owner Jerry McNaul, a partner with Helgren in the Seattle law firm McNaul Ebel Nawrot and Helgren.
David Conway, president of Conway Construction, said he did not know the lawsuit had been filed and declined to comment on it Wednesday.
The Ridgefield-based company has cooperated with investigators, making its employees and records available, he said.
"There's been a lot of things said, but I haven't seen any determination," about cause, he said.
Helgren said he has been in contact with Conway Construction's attorney Francis Floyd, but hasn't received any indication as to whether the company will settle or go to trial. Floyd did not immediately respond to a request for contact.
Rainier Steel, based in Auburn, declined to comment on the case.
Since the companies were working on a state Department of Transportation project, the state could be added as a defendant, Helgren said.
That project, the rebuilding of a bridge on State Route 10, should be finished in two to three weeks, Conway said.
A trial case could take years to resolve, said Rob Nelson of Abeyta Nelson, a Yakima law firm.
Nelson plans to sue on behalf of other Taylor Bridge Fire victims, but he is waiting for the state to finish its investigation, he said. "We're not certain who all the culpable parties are."
Helgren said damage amounts have yet to be determined, but he and Nelson said damages include the difference between victims' full losses and their insured losses.
"If you are negligent, and that negligence causes damages, then you are responsible for those damages," Nelson said.
Range of damages
For many victims, that means homes, outbuildings, personal possessions and vehicles. But it also includes things like restoring timber land, he said.
Property owners aren't the only ones who will seek money from anyone found liable for the fire. DNR would want to be reimbursed for fighting the fire, which cost at least $11 million, Flint said.
Also, insurance companies could seek to cover what they paid out for customers' claims, Nelson said.