A lawsuit filed in July by Rehberg Ranch Estates against the city of Billings alleging that firefighters failed to control a 2008 wildfire at the subdivision sits idle in Yellowstone County District Court nearly four months later.
An attorney defending the city against the lawsuit filed by Rep. Denny Rehberg and his wife, Jan, said there may be a “political portion” to the decision by Rehberg and his lawyers to not immediately move forward with the litigation.
“I understand they don’t plan to actually serve the city (with the lawsuit) until after the election,” said Michele Braukmann, a Billings attorney hired by the city.
Rehberg’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 2 election, Dennis McDonald, said Wednesday that he is not surprised that the complaint filed on July 2 has gone dormant. He described the lawsuit as “embarrassing for the congressman, who is suing the taxpayers.”
Jed Link, a spokesman for Rehberg, declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday. Rehberg is campaigning for his sixth term.
Cliff Edwards, a Billings attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Rehbergs, said Wednesday that the upcoming election has nothing to do with the inactivity of the case in court. Efforts have been made, with little success, to meet with city officials and their insurance company to reach a settlement, he said.
It is not unusual, Edwards said, for a lawsuit to be filed but not formally served. The party filing the lawsuit has three years to formally serve the other side. Once served, the party being sued has 30 days to file a response.
If it appears a settlement between the Rehbergs and the city can’t be reached, Edwards said, he will eventually have the lawsuit served on the city. But that won’t happen until the middle of next year at the earliest, he said.
The lawsuit alleges that city firefighters breached their duty to protect the Rehberg Ranch Estates from a wildfire that burned nearly 1,200 acres and forced the evacuation of about 40 homes on July 4, 2008.
Three days earlier, lightning sparked two small fires in the area of the subdivision owned by the Rehbergs. The fires were controlled, but a flare-up brought the blaze back to life.
The Billings Fire Department “carelessly abandoned the scene of a fire that it had not adequately suppressed during hot and windy conditions,” threatening homes and causing foreseeable damage to grazing land, fences, water pipes and other property, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit sparked its own political firestorm.
Shortly after it was filed, Rehberg appeared unannounced at a state firefighters’ convention in Billings, telling the group the lawsuit “has absolutely nothing to do with the firefighters.”
Rehberg told the gathering that the legal action was aimed only at city leaders who, he said, did not respond to requests for information and records about the decision to leave the Rehberg Ranch fire scene unattended.
Rehberg also said the lawsuit was filed to beat the two-year statute of limitations that was about to expire on civil action over the fire.
McDonald also attended the firefighters’ meeting, wearing a Melville Volunteer Fire Department cap, and used the opportunity to attack Rehberg.
Since then, McDonald has used the lawsuit as political ammunition, including in a recent television advertisement titled, “Which Congressman Rehberg stunts were the dumbest?”
In an interview Wednesday, McDonald pointed to another case involving Rehberg that has been delayed until after the upcoming election. Rehberg is expected to be among the key witnesses at the criminal trial of state Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, which is scheduled to begin Nov. 29.
Barkus is charged with three felony offenses related to an Aug. 27, 2009, boat crash that injured Rehberg, two of his staffers and Barkus’ wife. The trial was initially set for April 5 but was delayed at the request of both the prosecution and defense.
“I hope no one believes that it’s by accident that the Senator Barkus criminal matter won’t be heard until after the November election,” McDonald said.