Attorney General's Office presents new hurdle keeping Lower North Fork Fire claims from swift review

A.G., Gov. had promised "real time" compensation

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. - Lower North Fork Fire victims received a surprise in Jefferson County District Court on Friday afternoon.

Attorneys representing the Attorney General's Office presented a plan that would allow some victims to have their claims heard through a state claims board process, while other claims would still have to go through the judicial process in court.

This played out in a courtroom exactly one year after the Colorado State Forest Service ignited a prescribed burn that four days later would escape its intended boundaries. On March 26, 2012, the Lower North Fork Fire destroyed 4,140 acres, 22 homes and killed three people.

In a joint news conference in May, Governor John Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and both legislative houses announced a compromise that would allow Lower North Fork Fire victims a chance to avoid court and have their full claims heard by a state claims board on which Suthers sits.

"How soon would this take effect and how soon could these victims be getting money?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger at that May news conference.

"It takes effect, immediately right? Upon my signature, it takes effect. They prepare or present their claims to the claims board; it's happening in real time," said Hickenlooper.

The Governor was assisted in his answer by Suthers and then-Senate President Brandon Shaffer.

Nearly one year to the date of the fire, the victims have not been allowed to go through the claims board process. They are stuck in court, despite being told they could avoid that process.

In February, 7NEWS asked the Attorney General's Office why the victims are being forced to go through a court process.

We found out that once the insurance companies sued the state, seeking restitution for claims it had paid out, the victims' claims were bundled into the court process. The victims must now wait for the judicial process to play out before any additional claims can be heard by the legislative claims board.

In court on Friday, the Attorney General's Office presented three options for victims:

1. Claimants with documented economic loses can present their claims to the state claims board and then have those recommendations considered by the state legislature for final approval.

2. Claimants with non-economic loses can have their claims considered by a four-judge "judicial arbiter group" which would review the claims and consider compensation to be approved by a judge through the court process.

3. Claimants with non-economic loses and "exotic claims," such as civil rights and inverse condemnation claims, will have to go to litigation and not be allowed to have their claims heard by the state claims board.

"I'd like to tell the Attorney General how disgusted I am at the incredible display of chicanery that we saw in the courtroom today," said Lower North Fork Fire survivor Tom Scanlan.

"How does it feel to be back here in the courtroom? Disgusting. It does. I can't believe that this isn't behind us yet," said Lower North Fork Fire survivor Kim Olson.

The attorneys in the court equaled the number of survivors watching the proceedings. There were attorneys representing the victims, various insurance companies and Intermountain Rural Electric Association.

"We are now nearly one year after the fire and not a dime has been paid to my clients, and we are still stuck on square one because of bureaucratic red tape posed to us by the Attorneys General," said Tom Henderson, an attorney representing a number of the victims. "This is anything but real-time compensation."

The defendants include the state of Colorado, the Colorado State Forest Service and three individuals who were directly involved with the prescribed burn that led to the Lower North Fork Fire. The defendants were represented by nearly a dozen attorneys.

"We're now a year out (and) this legislative session recesses in early May. How in the world can my people get compensation in that amount of time, even if it's not full compensation? They can, perhaps, get some compensation by the time legislature recesses," said Henderson. "If that legislature recesses and my clients don't have fair compensation, we're now eight more months down the road until January of 2014, before the legislature is back in session."

Scott Appel, whose wife Ann was killed in the fire, wants to know why no one has been held accountable nearly one year later.

"I guess I'd ask the question, 'why would the state not hold itself to the same time standard they would hold any private party to or any insurance company?'" said Appel. "It's a joke and not a good one."

Since late February, 7NEWS has made multiple requests to interview Suthers regarding the process that the Lower North Fork Fire victims are going through. On March 14, Suthers' spokeswoman scheduled an interview time for March 21. Early that morning, the interview was abruptly canceled. 7NEWS was told it was because of security concerns. On Friday, the spokeswoman told 7NEWS it was because Suthers had a change in his schedule.