22 Aug Noonan Lance Boyer & Banach Secures Dismissal of $30 Million Lawsuit by United States in Mountain Fire Case
Attorney James Lance’s Discovery of Unidentified Witnesses Shortly Before Trial Leads to Dismissal
Noonan Lance Boyer & Banach LLP (NoonanLance) recently secured the dismissal of a $30 million federal lawsuit brought by the United States against its client Dr. Tarek Shawaf. The Central District of California suit, filed in 2016, sought damages caused by the 2013 Mountain Fire in Mountain Center, California that burned for more than two weeks. The U.S. asserted a claim in excess of $30 million for fire suppression costs, damage to federal lands, penalties and interest. A related case was filed in Riverside Superior Court by individuals who suffered property losses in the fire.
A NoonanLance team of attorneys led by Partner James Lance represented Shawaf, the owner of a vacation home in Mountain Center, California, where the government alleged the fire started. NoonanLance Partner Ethan Boyer and Associate Genevieve Ruch also played key roles in the case. The caretakers of Shawaf’s property, Jim and Donna Nowlin, were also named as defendants. David Bona of Carlson, Calladine & Peterson LLP in San Francisco represented the Nowlins.
Although Shawaf and the Nowlins felt strongly that they had no responsibility for starting the fire, Shawaf instructed his property insurers to pay the $5 million in available insurance to the plaintiffs in the state case who lost their homes and valuables in the fire. Shawaf took the risk of paying all of the insurance money to the individual plaintiffs even though the U.S. was pursuing a $30 million federal case against him because he wanted to help his neighbors.
The U.S. claimed that the fire started at an electrical junction box on Shawaf’s property, which the U.S. alleged was not properly maintained. Experts hired by Lance and Bona disputed this theory based on their on-site investigations and extensive testing.
Shortly before the trial against the U.S. was to begin, Lance learned that two U.S. Forest Service firefighters, who were not identified by the U.S. as witnesses regarding how the fire started, told one of the state plaintiffs that the fire did not start at the junction box. The two men were with the first firefighters to arrive at Shawaf’s property on the day of the fire.
Lance learned this information from Mr. Lawrence Goda, a self-represented plaintiff in the state case after a hearing to notify the court that his case had settled. Lance explained, “Mr. Goda asked me to go to breakfast after the hearing, where he told me that he stopped by a fire station and asked if any of the firefighters knew how the Mountain Fire started, something we cannot do because attorneys are not permitted to directly contact employees of a represented party.” The two firefighters told Goda they were there, and the fire did not start at the junction box.
“This eyewitness testimony completely undermined the liability theory of the United States against Dr. Shawaf and the Nowlins,” Lance said.. Since the U.S. had not identified these two witnesses as having knowledge about how the fire started during discovery, Lance and Bona contacted the trial attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and demanded that the U.S. produce the two firefighters for deposition before the trial.
The trial attorney in the U.S. attorney’s office said he would investigate the issue, and shortly thereafter, the U.S. decided to dismiss the case with no payments from. Shawaf or the Nowlins. U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II of the Central District issued an order dismissing the case with prejudice on July 15, 2019.
“The erroneous claims about the cause of the fire devastated the Nowlins and made them outcasts in their hometown,” Lance said. “Dr. Shawaf spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself and the Nowlins. Neither would have happened if the government entities would have properly investigated the Mountain Fire.”