The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a $28.8-million federal jury award against a contractor found liable for “intangible” environmental damage from a June 2002 wildfire that burned 18,000 acres in California’s Angeles National Forest. United States v. CB&I Constructors, Inc., No. 10-55371 (9th Cir. 6/29/12).
The federal government filed the lawsuit in 2008 against Merco Construction Engineers and its subcontractor for damages allegedly caused when the subcontractor, while building a water-storage project, ignited dry brush which resulted in a wildfire that spread to the national forest. The government sought to recover $6.6 million in fire suppression costs and unspecified damages for harm to wildlife habitats, soils, native plants, loss of recreational use, scenic views, the California red-legged frog habitats, and a historic mining camp.
After a five-day trial, Merco settled its liability for $2.1 million. Jurors awarded the government $7.6 million for fire suppression and other costs and an additional $28.8 million for “intangible” environmental damages. Their verdict found both defendants liable in negligence and trespass, assigning 65 percent of the blame to the subcontractor and 35 percent to Merco. The subcontractor appealed. The three-judge appellate panel held that the damages award “was not grossly excessive” based on the substantial evidence the government presented at trial. According to the court, “[u]nder California law, the government was entitled to full compensation for all the harms caused by the fire, including intangible environmental harm.”