Judge orders state to reinstate $5 million in compensation to Lower North Fork fire victims

Judge orders state to reinstate $5 million in compensation to Lower North Fork fire victims

Marshall Zelinger, Alan Gathright – 7 News

SuthersJEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. – A Jefferson County judge has ruled against State Attorney General John Suthers, saying victims of the devastating Lower North Fork fire should receive $5 million more than the State Claims Board was willing to pay.

The March 2012 wildfire, which started as a prescribed burn by the State Forest Service, destroyed 22 homes and charred 4,100 acres. It killed three people: Sam Lucas, Linda Lucas and Ann Appel.

Fire victims have waited two years for the state of Colorado to pay them back for the fire that destroyed their community and forever changed their lives.

People say they feel victimized all over again by the legal battle with the state over their fire claims.

“We keep getting burned over and over and over again in a different way,” said Scott Appel, whose wife, Ann, died in the firestorm that destroyed their home and charred their property.

An independent panel of four retired judges spent two months reviewing victims’ claims and recommended the state pay about $16.4 million to 19 families.

However, earlier this month, the State Claims Board reduced that compensation to $11 million, a figure that doesn’t include non-economic losses like death and emotional distress. The board’s members are Attorney General Suthers, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and state Director of Personnel Kathy Nesbitt.

In one victim’s case, the board recommended reducing a $4.5 million payment to $3.1 million.

The board recommended cutting another victim’s compensation from $146,000 to $63,000.

But on Friday night, District Judge Dennis Hall ruled the State Claims Board was wrong and reinstated the $16.4 million recommended by the independent panel of retired judges. Hall also ordered the victims’ be paid for non-economic losses, which could include compensation loss of life and emotional distress.

For victims, the judge’s is ruling is a step toward resolution of the two-year legal struggle.

But residents such as Scott Appel have become used to unexpected reversals in this process.

“I had no idea how difficult and expensive the process would be,” Appel said.

In May 2013, Judge Hall “The Special Masters’ determinations of value will be final and binding on the participating parties.” That meant the four-judge panel’s ruling on how much victims’ are owed would be binding on the victims and the state.

But then the State Claims Board reduced the special masters’ compensation amounts.

“Presto change-o, the deal’s off once again,” Scott Appel said. “Where I come from, binding means binding.”

The victims went back to court asking Judge Hall honor the independent panel’s recommendations.

The attorney general objected, saying any court judgment would be limited to the state’s total $600,000 liability limit for all victims.

In a court document filed on April 15, the attorney general wrote, “the claims board, as a separate deliberative body, is not bound” by the independent panel.

In his Friday ruling, Judge Hall rejected that argument.

“The intent of the legislature was to permit trial courts to enter judgment against the state in amounts exceeding the tort cap,” Hall stated. “The attorney general’s objection… is not well taken.”

Fire victim Tom Scalan has had a belly full of the State Claims Board, which cut his compensation offer almost in half.

“The attorney general is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he is not consistent,” Scanlan said.

“I am exhausted by the deceit and treachery that I’ve seen,” the weary fire victim added.

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