In October 2016, the Nevada Division of Forestry started a controlled fire in Little Valley, a property owned by the University of Nevada-Reno. On October 14, 2016, NDF’s conduct resulted in a devastating wildfire that destroyed 23 homes and damaged countless other homes. NDF deliberately and knowingly violated many safety standards for a controlled fire. Reno, Nevada personal injury lawyer Matthew Sharp acted as one of the lawyers for the fire victims. The Washoe County jury held the Nevada Division of Forestry accountable by finding it acted grossly negligent as it failed to exercise any amount of care.
Below is a text-only version of the story from the August 17, 2018 edition of the Reno Gazette Journal:
Little Valley Fire trial: Jury finds Nevada Division of Forestry guilty of gross negligence
Jason Hidalgo, Reno Gazette Journal Published 1:34 p.m. PT Aug. 17, 2018 | Updated 6:09 p.m. PT Aug. 17, 2018
A Washoe County jury on Friday found the Nevada Division of Forestry guilty of gross negligence in the Little Valley Fire that burned down 23 homes in 2016.
The jury also said the University of Nevada, Reno was not guilty of gross negligence as part of their role in the prescribed burn that exploded out of control on Oct. 14, 2016.
“Vindicated, vindicated,” said a tearful Debbie Sheltra when asked how she felt about the verdict.
Sheltra was one of several residents whose house burned down from the Little Valley Fire.
“It doesn’t replace what we’ve lost, but we feel a great sense of satisfaction because we were right and we didn’t give up,” Sheltra said.
Matt Sharp, one of the lawyers for the fire victims, called the decision “a just verdict.” Sharp, who argued in court for the jury to find UNR grossly negligent as well, said the verdict still sends the right message despite the university not being found liable the same way NDF was.
“The point of the verdict is that what happened in Franktown Road shouldn’t happen to anybody,” Sharp said. “This is a step in the right direction.”
The Reno Gazette Journal did not have a chance to talk to lawyers for the state after the verdict. During closing arguments, however, lead defense lawyer Steven Shevorski said “mistakes were made and we will accept the consequences,” while addressing the jury.
Despite the victory, representatives for the fire victims say their battle is not over yet.
The issue now moves to how much damages the state will be liable for, which is capped by Nevada law at $100,000. A Reno Gazette Journal analysis found that total damages to residents from the fire exceeded $80 million, with destroyed houses having an average worth of $1.4 million.
Dave Houston, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the cap unfair.
“If a regular citizen (does the same amount of damage), they would be bankrupt,” Houston said. “If the state does it, they have such a limited liability that not everyone is made whole.
Sharp echoed Houston’s comment, saying that the state should be held accountable for the damage they caused.
“It’s an unjust law but we’ll have to deal with it,” Sharp said. “We’re gonna take it one step at a time.”
Gross negligence was front and center in the Little Valley Fire trial as lawyers made their final argument before the jury on Friday.
Lawyer Bill Jeanney, who represented fire victims, slammed the Nevada Division of Forestry for failing to exercise “even a slight amount of care” — the legal definition for gross negligence — in several instances during his closing argument.
RGJ Investigates: Burn size, poor monitoring and delays helped fuel Little Valley Fire
Jeanney listed a litany of issues with the NDF’s implementation of the Little Valley burn, which escaped containment and turned into a full-blown wildfire on Oct. 14, 2016.
These include a faulty burn plan that did not include an analysis of fuels adjacent to the burn as well as notes by burn boss trainee Paul Carmichael that the agency proceeded despite conditions falling out of prescription, Jeanney said.
“This is a very dangerous business of lighting fires so if you’re gonna do it, you have to follow the rules,” Jeanney said.
The defense, meanwhile, countered that NDF did its due diligence in carrying out the burn. Lawyer Steven Shevorski pointed to the independent report released after the fire that stated the Little Valley Burn, despite its issues, was done carefully.
“Is that gross negligence?” Shevorski said. “Is that failure to use even a slight degree of care?”
Both sides also debated the role of the University of Nevada, Reno, in the Little Valley Fire and whether it had any liability for the damage caused. The university, which owned the Whittell Forest land where the fire started, was a partner in the Little Valley Burn.
Matt Sharp, one of the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that the university pushed for the burn despite objections from community members. The accusation followed a pattern by the plaintiffs’ lawyers of casting responsibility on people in positions of leadership and putting crew members in a tough spot.
“These poor, young men were put in a position to fail — UNR did,” Sharp said. “This is about an institution engaging in a joint effort to impose their will on a community. The community didn’t want the burn. The U.S. Forest Service didn’t want the burn.”
Assigning liability to UNR, however, sets a bad precedent, according to the defense. Shevorksi argued that the university had no role in approving the burn, drawing up the plans for it or approving its staffing.
“Did they sign the burn plan? No. Did they draw the control lines? No. Did they pick the men (to staff the burn)? No,” Shevorski said. “There’s no basis to hold UNR liable for something they did not control.”
Shevorski also stressed that no one is more heartbroken about the Little Valley Fire than NDF and the people who worked on the burn. Seeing the damage caused by the fire has essentially “crippled” the agency and the people involved in the burn, Shevorski said.
While mistakes were made and the burn was not perfect, however, it does not rise to the standard of gross negligence, Shevorski argued.
Jeanney begged to differ, saying burn officials did not follow their own rules.
“For two years, these people have been living without their homes,” Jeanney said. “Some lost 60 years worth of memories. They just want (NDF) to accept responsibility for what they did, for breaking their own rules.”