Mountain View Fire lawsuit on hold after challenge

An exhibit included in the plaintiffs brief shows the damage done by the fatal Nov. 18, 2020, Mountain View Fire in Walker, Calif.

An exhibit included in the plaintiffs brief shows the damage done by the fatal Nov. 18, 2020, Mountain View Fire in Walker, Calif.

A trial in a lawsuit charging that a Liberty Utilities power line started the 2020 Mountain View Fire that claimed the life of Eastern Sierra poet Sallie Joseph is on hold after the power company challenged the judge.

Attorney Alexander Robertson’s firm represents around 80 of the individuals who are suing the company.

The trial was supposed to start on March 6 in Los Angeles, Robertson said in an email to The Record-Courier, but just before it was supposed to start Liberty challenged the judge’s impartiality.

The fire started in high winds on Nov. 17, 2020, near the front of Mountain View Barbecue, after which it was named. At the time, the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch web site indicated the fire was caused by a downed power line in brush. The fire claimed more than 90 structures and 20,000 acres. At the time, Mono authorities called it the largest and most destructive fire in the county’s history.

The entire town was evacuated as a result of the fire.

There are more than 400 plaintiffs and dozens of insurance companies involved in the lawsuit.

According to a brief filed in support of the plaintiffs, an investigation conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found the cause of the fire was a power line that failed and came in contact with dry grass.

Witnesses said they saw sparks from the power line ignite the fire.

According to the brief, Liberty claims that the fire was started by an unidentified third party and that the power line broke after the fire’s ignition.

The plaintiffs assert that the uninsulated power line broke in the middle, in part due to extensive splicing of the wire.

“Liberty Utilities has refused to settle with any of the plaintiffs and a trial was scheduled to begin on March 6 in downtown Los Angeles before the Hon. Kenneth Freeman (who coincidentally is presiding over several other wildfire cases against Southern California Edison Company),” Robertson said. “Hours before opening statements were scheduled to begin, Liberty Utilities filed a motion seeking to disqualify the trial judge, claiming that ‘he cannot be fair and impartial and has repeatedly demonstrated his preconceived opinion that Defendants Liberty Utilities (CalPeco Electric) LLC and Liberty Utilities Co. are liable.’” 

Robertson said that the L.A. Superior Court filed a response denying Freeman is biased.

That means a neutral judge has to be appointed, which means the trial is suspended while that motion is sorted out.

The Record-Courier has reached out to Liberty Utilities for comment.


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