Three Insurers Sue To Recover Claims Paid in ’02 Wildfire

June 15, 2006

Three insurance companies filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday to recover $7.04 million in claims paid for homes damaged or destroyed in the 2002 Hayman Fire in Colorado.

State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. Inc., three Hartford insurance entities, and Allstate Insurance Co. claim the U.S. Forest Service was negligent, partly because of how the agency supervised the forestry worker who started the worst wildfire in Colorado history.

Terry Lynn Barton, 42, pleaded guilty to a state felony arson charge for starting the blaze by burning a letter in a drought-stricken area, where a fire ban had been issued. The fire scorched 138,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and forced more than 8,000 people to leave their homes.

The lawsuit claims that the forest service was negligent in its duty to prevent and suppress wildfires and it breached its duty by allowing Barton to “act alone and unsupervised” by not having teams of two patrolling the area.

Failure to keep radio dispatch lines available to report the fire and failure to adequately respond to the report also contributed to the forest service’s negligence, the lawsuit claims.

The Hartford and Allstate companies paid about 160 claims ranging from less than $300 to nearly $300,000, totaling about $3.51 million according to court documents. State Farm did not include the individual amounts of its approximately 150 claims, but in the lawsuit said it paid out $3.53 million.

Jim Maxwell, a spokesman for the forest service in Denver said he hadn’t seen the suit.

“The forest service pursued justice in this case with great zeal,” Maxwell said of its investigation of Barton. “We already have pursued justice.”

A civil trial: “will bring out all the factors that led to the loss of each home, and we’ll just let the legal chips fall where they may,” Maxwell said. “We always want justice to be served.”

Barton is appealing her 12 year prison sentenced handed down on state charges. She is also serving a six year sentence on federal charges.

The companies named the United States as a defendant because the forest service is one of its agencies, according to the suit.

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