Colorado lawmakers introduce bill to pay Lower North Fork Fire victims $17.6M in claims

DENVER - The state legislature is poised to pay Lower North Fork Fire victims $17.6 million.

In a last-minute effort to get payment this year for victims of the March 2012 fire, which was started by the Colorado State Forest Service, lawmakers have introduced a bill to pay 20 claims.

"While our budget is normally closed, we've pulled together 'Where there's a will, there's a way' and we're wanting to make sure we're doing what we can for the remaining victims of this fire," said Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

In 2013, victims of the Lower North Fork Fire made an agreement in court with the State of Colorado to go through a process where an independent panel of four retired judges would determine the value of their losses not covered by insurance. Those values were supposed to be final and binding and could be in excess of the state's $600,000 liability limit.

The independent panel determined economic losses, such as burned land and charred trees and non-economic losses, such as emotional distress and the deaths of Ann Appel and Sam and Linda Lucas. The independent panel also included interest payments. The total amounted to about $18-$19 million.

Earlier this month, those recommendations were presented to the state claims board. The claims board is made up of Attorney General John Suthers, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Kathy Nesbitt, the executive director of the Department of Personnel and Administration. State law prevents the state claims board from paying out non-economic claims. The claims board took the economic claims and reduced the majority of them and also removed interest.

The claims board was willing to pay $11 million.

The victims went back to court and asked the judge to order the independent panel recommendations be forwarded to the state legislature to be approved for payment.

The Attorney General objected, arguing that any judgment made in a courtroom would be limited to the state's $600,000 liability limit.

On April 25, 7NEWS broke the news that the judge found in favor of the victims, disagreeing with the Attorney General's arguments. The judge ruled that a state law from 1992 allowed a judgment to be made in excess of the state's liability limit.

Late Thursday, the bill to pay victims $17.6 million was introduced in the state Senate and assigned to the appropriations committee for Friday morning.

For a bill to pass through the legislative process, it needs at least three days. The last day of this legislative session is May 7.

"From my perspective, I think we have a moral responsibility to come in and do the best we can to try and finally get closure on this," said Carroll. "In fairness, for a lot of the victims and the families there, the recommendations aren't necessarily all the losses that people went through, but it is, I think, the very best we can do."

The final recommendations in the bill include the independent panel economic and non-economic values, but the interest rate was lowered.

"People had different opinions about economic, the non-economic damages (and) the interest rate. Where we found bi-partisan, bicameral support was to go with prime interest rate," said Carroll. "Eight and nine percent was striking some people as high. It adds up to several million dollars more money. Some people wanted no interest. Some people wanted eight percent interest. Where we've been able to land is basically at 3.25 percent, which is prime interest."

The payments will also include non-economic damages for the deaths of Ann Appel and Sam and Linda Lucas.

"I think it's important for people to know; non-economic damages, we had people die. There are some things you can put a dollar figure on, life and death is not an economic damage," said Carroll.

The state Joint Budget Committee has already set aside $11 million to pay victims. As of Thursday night, line items were still being reviewed to determine where the additional $6.2 million would come from.

The bill must make it through the Senate appropriations committee and then pass through the entire Senate on two votes. Then the bill goes through the same process on the House side, before potentially ending up on the Governor's desk.

The bill allows victims to be paid no later than Sept. 1.

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