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A look at the unprecedented and failed $60 million lawsuit following the Black Forest Fire

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) - Following the destructive and deadly 2013 Black Forest Fire, dozens of homeowners filed a since-failed $60 million lawsuit against El Paso County and the Black Forest Fire District. 13 Investigates looked into why the lawsuit was unprecedented and what all homeowners can learn from it.

When the Black Forest Fire was over, some residents were left wondering if more could've been done to prevent it. Fifty-eight homeowners ended up filing a lawsuit, asking for $1 million each.

The lawsuit claimed the fire was sparked by a controlled burn at the hands of Assistant Deputy Fire Marshal Scott Campbell. However, the cause of the Black Forest Fire officially remains a mystery ten years later.

They assert that El Paso County Officials disregarded dangerous fire conditions on that fateful June day - including winds that reached 40 mph and extremely dry and hot conditions.

Once the fire ignited, the homeowners also claimed the county and state failed to properly contain and extinguish the blaze.

One year after the lawsuit was filed, a federal judge dismissed it. The dismissal came after all but one homeowner filed documents stating they didn't object to the case being thrown out.

"I sympathize with the people who lost their homes in this, but sometimes they have to vote people out of office because they don't do a good job. That's simply the way it is."

Trial attorney Terry Rector understands losing a home more than most. He lost his home in the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.

That fire was considered the most devastating wildfire in Colorado history before the tragedy of the Black Forest Fire broke that record. That record was broken yet again in 2021 with the Marshall Fire.

The federal lawsuit was filed without the help of an attorney who specializes in civil law. Rector believes with the help of an attorney the homeowners could have had more of a case.

"Unfortunately, in today's world, we can't give your house back. But we have to put it in terms of monetary gain. And that's why an attorney would be very critical in something like this," said Rector.

Rector has represented multiple people who lost their homes in deadly fires. He's filed lawsuits against insurance companies that didn't properly equip homeowners with enough fire protection

"There's a greater duty on the agents to ensure that they have a reasonable amount of coverage. And many people were underinsured. There was not enough money to replace what they lost."

However, he hasn't gone after county elected officials who have governmental immunity in cases like this.

"To me, it's more of a political controversy than a legal one," explained Rector.

In order to sue a governmental entity and win in court, Rector said you have to prove the entity acted with willful disregard in its duty to protect citizens.

He said the claim that fire officials weren't "good enough" to put out the Black Forest Fire would be nearly impossible to prove in a court of law.

"It's a nice inventory of things that could have been done better. But from a legal standpoint, it's got too many pitfalls and too many obstacles on it to go after the government," said Rector.

13 Investigates reached out to the Black Forest Fire Protection District and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for comment on this lawsuit. Both declined to comment.

The sheriff's office did say their investigation into the cause of the fire is now a cold case but added they're committed to investigating any new tips that may surface.

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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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