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Rick Linkert and Co-Defense Counsel Secured Dismissal of the Civil Cost Recovery Case Filed by Cal Fire Resulting in a Total Award in Excess of $32 Million

Mon Aug 10th, 2020 by  News & Events

On February 6, 2014, Rick Linkert and co-defense counsel secured “Terminating Sanctions” and a total award of more than $32 million. They have been collectively sued for more than $80 million by Cal Fire and 5 groups of private landowners. This historic result was the last in the series of trial court rulings by Judge (Ret.) Leslie C. Nichols sitting by appointment of the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court as “judge for all purposes”.

On July 26, 2013 the three groups of defendants sued in six consolidated cases designated “complex litigation” obtained dismissal of all actions on the eve of trial. The defendant groups were Sierra Pacific Industries; a group of Landowners known as the Walker family Landowners and their forester, W.M. Beaty; and Howell’s Forest Harvesting. Rick Linkert was the lead trial counsel for Landowners/Beaty. Sierra Pacific was represented by Downey Brand (lead trial counsel – Bill Warne; Howell’s was represented by Rushford & Bonotto (lead trial counsel – Phil Bonotto). In spite of potential conflicts arising from indemnity claims, the defendant groups were able to present a united defense and defeat what they all believed was a fraudulent and corrupt investigation and prosecution by Cal Fire. The six consolidated cases were dismissed following a ruling that Cal Fire had no statutory basis to sue Sierra Pacific or Landowners/Beaty as none conceivably started the fire. All defendants (including Howell’s, whose operator was accused of starting the fire when the metal track of a bulldozer allegedly struck a rock) were dismissed when all plaintiffs were unable to make a prima facie showing of both negligence or that any alleged negligence caused the fire to escape Landowners’ property.

Following the dismissals, defendants filed a series of motions based upon the egregious conduct of Cal Fire and its investigators. These motions sought terminating sanctions for discovery abuses (a third basis of dismissal) and both attorneys’ fees and all expert fees from the inception of litigation.

On February 6, 2014, following the filing of a massive series of briefs and a contentious two day hearing, Rick Linkert and co-defense counsel succeeded in recovering all fees and costs and sanctions and under all other theories alleged. Judge Leslie C. Nichols issued a scathing 26 page “preface order” and adopted defendants’ 58 page proposed order, finding that “Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted.” Judge Nichols proceeded by adjusting the total to more than $30 million to punish Cal Fire and state lawyers who represented the agency as well as to protect the integrity of the Court. Amongst the many remarks by the Court is the following:

“Cal Fire and its counsel engaged in a stratagem of obfuscation that infected virtually every aspect of discovery in this case. The pattern and practice of disregard began during the discovery process and continued after this Court entered judgment. The repeated and egregious violations of the discovery laws not only impaired defendants’ rights, but have ‘threatened the integrity of the judicial process’”.

Mr. Linkert recovered $6.7 million in attorneys’ fees and expert witness fees for the Walker Family and W.M. Beaty.

Below is a table of fees:

Fees/Sanctions                                          Costs

Sierra Pacific              $21,212,822.40                                         $2,852,209.34

Landowners                $6,146,901.41                                           $583,173.15

Howell’s                      $1,166,155.20                                            $405,586.08

Total                           $28,525,879.01                                          $3,840,968.57

Cal Fire has appealed the July 26, 2013 dismissals. It remains to be seen if Cal Fire appeals the February 6, 2014 orders.

To read the order in it’s entirety, click on the download link below.

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