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Paul Wellman

Judge Rules in Favor of Tea Fire Victims

Lance and Carla Hoffman Able to Pursue Damages Against Property Owners


In an early but small victory for Lance and Carla Hoffman — the only two victims from 2008’s Tea Fire — Judge Colleen Sterne allowed their lawsuit against the owners of the property where the fire began to continue on almost fully intact. The judge said Monday morning one of the causes of action, negligence per se (which is implied negligence when a statute is violated), did not have to be its own cause of action, but could be argued under a general negligence cause of action.

Sterne overruled objections from Mary K. Robinson and Mary K. Robinson Living Trust, owners of the “Tea Garden” property in the hills above Westmont College where the fire began the evening of November 13, 2008, as to the other four causes of action. This means the Hoffmans can pursue damages against Robinson and the living trust for negligence, public nuisance, private nuisance, and premises liability. The two defendants were arguing the Hoffmans hadn’t stated facts in the lawsuit to support their allegation.

Lance and Carla Hoffman
Click to enlarge photo

Len Wood

Lance and Carla Hoffman

David Nye, attorney for the Hoffmans, said parties on the property were a regular occurrence, according to neighbors in the area. He said that while previous property owners had posted security guards in the area, Robinson did nothing to stop the problem. “If she did not know [about trespassers], she chose not to know,” he said. Robinson purchased the 78-acre property in 2006.

Also named in the suit were the ten people who allegedly started the fire. Mohammed Alessam, Fahad Al-fadhel, Joshua Decker-Trinidad, Stephen Reid, Lauren Vazquez, Hope Dunlap, Hashim Hassan, Casey Lamonte, Natalie Maese, and Carver McLellan are all named in the lawsuit, and are alleged to have started the fire. Each is being sued for gross negligence, negligence, and negligence per se. None of the court proceedings Monday morning had to do with the ten, however, and none were present in court.

Nye said most of the defendants had been served, and some had filed responses in the case.

It is alleged they failed to adequately extinguish the fire, and hours after their bonfire ended, embers kicked up by fierce winds the next evening led to widespread destruction.

The ten were criminally charged with misdemeanors of trespassing and starting a campfire without a permit, and most pleaded no contest to the trespassing charge and received community service and a fine.

The Hoffmans filed suit nearly two years after being severely burned in the Tea Fire, which destroyed 230 homes. According to their attorney, they’ve spent almost $5 million in medical expenses to treat the burns and other injuries.

The case is expected to return to court in June.

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