Judge orders state to reinstate $5 million in compensation to Lower North Fork fire victims

State ordered to pay $16.4 million to victims

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. - A Jefferson County judge has ruled against State Attorney General John Suthers, saying victims of the devastating Lower North Fork Fire should receive $5 million more than the State Claims Board was willing to pay.

The March 2012 wildfire, which started as a prescribed burn by the State Forest Service, destroyed 22 homes in the Jefferson County foothills and charred 4,100 acres. It killed three people: Sam Lucas, Linda Lucas and Ann Appel.

Fire victims have waited two years for the state of Colorado to pay them back for the fire that destroyed their community and forever changed their lives.

People say they feel victimized all over again by the legal battle with the state over their fire claims.

"We keep getting burned over and over and over again in a different way," said Scott Appel, whose wife, Ann, died in the firestorm that destroyed their home and charred eight of their 13 pieces of property.

An independent panel of four retired judges spent two months reviewing victims' claims and recommended the state pay $16.4 million to fire victims. 

However, earlier this month, the State Claims Board reduced that compensation to $11 million, a figure that doesn't include non-economic losses like death and emotional distress. The board's members are Attorney General Suthers, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and state Director of Personnel Kathy Nesbitt.  

In one victim's case, the board recommended reducing a $4.5 million payment to $3.1 million.

The board recommended cutting another victim's compensation from $146,000 to $63,000.

The victims went back to court, asking District Judge Dennis Hall to honor the independent panel's recommendations.

In May 2013, Judge Hall wrote that, "The Special Masters' determinations of value will be final and binding on the participating parties." That meant the four-judge panel's ruling on how much victims are owed would be binding on the victims and the state.

The attorney general objected, saying any court judgment would be limited to the state's total $600,000 liability limit for all victims.

In a court document filed on April 15, the attorney general wrote, "the claims board, as a separate deliberative body, is not bound" by the independent panel recommendations.

"Presto change-o, the deal's off once again," Scott Appel said. "Where I come from, binding means binding."

In his Friday ruling, Judge Hall rejected the attorney general's argument, reinstating the $16.4 million recommended by the independent panel of retired judges. Hall also ordered the victims be paid for non-economic losses.

"The intent of the legislature was to permit trial courts to enter judgment against the state in amounts exceeding the tort cap," Hall wrote. "The attorney general's objection... is not well taken."

For victims, the judge's is ruling is a step toward resolution of the two-year legal fight.

"I had no idea how difficult and expensive the process would be," Appel said.

Fire victim Tom Scanlan has had a belly full of the State Claims Board, which cut his compensation offer in half.

"The attorney general is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he is not consistent," Scanlan said.

"I am exhausted by the deceit and treachery that I've seen," the weary fire victim added.

The attorney general has until May 2 to respond to the judge's order. If there is no appeal, the victims will likely need a state lawmaker to sponsor a bill including the $16.4 million in claims. That bill would need to be approved through the legislative process for the victims to receive payment.

The last day of the 2014 legislative session is May 7.

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