Fire Liability in Wildfire Country

No one who lives in California is unaware of the wildfires that raged through the state every summer for the past decade. These wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed hundreds of people. Unfortunately, it appears that they will only be getting worse as climate conditions continue to change. 

That is a serious problem for anyone who spends time in California. These fires can expand at highway speeds, putting visitors and long-time residents at risk if they are anywhere near a blaze. You could lose everything if the winds change – including your health or life. 

That is why it’s so important to understand how fire liability works in California. Despite what you may assume, it is possible to hold a party responsible for starting a wildfire, even if it was unintentional. If you are injured or lose a loved one to a fire, you may be able to pursue compensation for your losses. When you understand liability, you are better prepared to file a successful claim against the parties responsible for your injuries.

Wildfires vs. House Fires: Is Liability Different?

The first question many people ask is simple: are wildfires treated differently from housefires when assigning liability? The answer is simple: no. Both house fires and wildfires may be the result of things like:

  • Negligence: Structure and forest fires often begin because someone neglects to take basic precautions. This negligence can be minor, such as someone knocking over a candle or failing to fully extinguish a campfire. However, it can also be more serious, such as an electrician ignoring building codes and causing a short or Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) failing to maintain the electrical grid. In every case, the negligent party is likely at least partially liable for the fire. 
  • Arson: Fires can also be set on purpose. If someone purposefully sets a structure or outdoor area on fire, they are directly liable for the ensuing damage. In rare cases, if someone is exceptionally negligent, they may be considered to have acted recklessly, which may elevate their liability to intentional arson. For instance, some have argued that PG&E’s continued neglect of the power grid may be considered reckless due to the number of fires poorly maintained power lines have caused.
  • Natural events: Finally, some fires are no one’s fault. These can be caused by natural events like lightning strikes or accidents that couldn’t have been avoided. In these cases, no party is responsible for causing the fire. 

Who Is Liable for Wildfire Damage?

Depending on the circumstances, there are several parties that could be liable for wildfire injuries. These include:

  • Utility companies: California’s PG&E is frequently found liable for fires caused by faults in its electrical grid. The company is responsible for maintaining these systems and has a duty of care to ensure they don’t cause harm. When the grid causes wildfires, PG&E is liable for the damage caused.
  • Municipalities: Towns, cities, and other public entities are responsible for following state laws regarding fire mitigation. If they fail to do so and a fire can spread because of their neglect, they may be liable for the harm it causes. 
  • Premises owners: Similarly, premises owners must follow safe building codes and fire mitigation regulations on their properties. If a company or employer doesn’t do so and a wildfire reaches the structure and injures customers or employees, it may be found responsible for their medical bills. Similarly, failing to warn about fires or evacuation orders or attempting to keep people from leaving the premise for their own protection, the company may be liable for resulting injuries.

More than one of these parties may be liable for the same injuries. For instance, PG&E may be responsible for starting the blaze, while a business could be responsible for failing to warn you about it. In that case, they would share liability for the harm you suffer.

Pursuing Wildfire Damage Claims from Liable Parties 

Assigning liability for a fire matters because it determines whether someone is responsible for covering the financial losses it caused. If the liable party has insurance covering damage caused by their negligence or recklessness, that policy will cover the fire victim’s losses. If the party doesn’t have insurance, they must cover those losses directly. 

When you have been injured by a wildfire, your personal health insurance will cover some expenses, but rarely all. Bills for a fire-related hospitalization can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if you need surgery or skin grafts for your burns. Determining liability for the fire allows you to pursue compensation from the party that caused your injuries. You can begin the process by:

  • Notify your insurance. Anytime you are injured in an accident or disaster, it’s worthwhile to notify your insurance. This is particularly true if you may need to file a claim with your home or auto insurance, which may provide additional coverage for medical expenses.
  • Saving all medical bills and related expenses. Keep track of all medical costs you face due to your injuries, in addition to losses like the time you can’t work and damage to your home and possessions.
  • Consulting with a skilled attorney. The best thing you can do after suffering from burn injuries from any disaster is to consult with an experienced burn attorney. They can help you identify who may be liable for the harm you’ve suffered and help you build your case.

At Fiore Achermann, we have years of experience representing victims of some of the most devastating fires in recent California history. We understand the complexities of fire liability and have the skills and knowledge to help you pursue justice for your injuries. Learn more about how we can help you receive compensation for wildfire injuries and losses by scheduling your consultation with our California fire injury law firm today.