CASPER — A judge determined Tuesday — after five months of inactivity — that a trial should determine the city of Casper’s liability for a 2015 wildfire that destroyed 14 homes and burned nearly 10,000 acres of land.
The total extent of damages a jury might award to homeowners still party to the case is unclear. Although the city brought the case by requesting that a judge cap the city’s liability to $500,000, Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking has ruled against the city on that front. And following the city’s failed appeal to the state supreme court, defense attorneys argued that the government should not have another opportunity to limit its legal exposure.
The judge did not directly address that argument Tuesday but ignored an offer by the city’s attorney, Jay Gilbertz, to expound on alternatives to trial. When Gilbertz suggested another hearing before the judge to show damages, Wilking again declined. She instead asked lawyers — and any of the more than dozen audience members who have lost homes but haven’t hired attorneys — to submit proposed trial dates.
Following her determination, the judge invited people not represented by lawyers to ask questions about procedure. Wilking’s answers were circumscribed by an ethical rule prohibiting her from offering legal advice. However, only a single question came. The remained of statements made by those who lack attorneys instead mostly cited procedural frustration.
“My home went down ... four years ago” said Robert Gilmore, of Casper. “We didn’t ask the city to burn our properties. And all of a sudden the city’s suing us?”
No one died but nearly 1,000 people were at least temporarily displaced by the five-day blaze.
The city of Casper in April 2016 then made its request by way of an unusual procedure. Although it was not party to a lawsuit, the city asked Wilking to determine liability for the fire and then decide which property owners should receive compensation and how much.
The city also asked for a delay in legal proceedings until the statute of limitations to file a claim had run out. By the time the two-year limit expired, 61 property owners had filed claims. Some have since removed themselves from proceedings.
In its request, the city asked Wilking to determine the city would only be liable for a total of $500,000 for all legal claims related to the fire. Lawyers argued that a state law capping damages owed by cities to a half-million dollars should apply.
The judge, in January of this year, dismissed an argument that the cap is outdated and should be disregarded. Wilking went on, however, to rule that the city had failed to demonstrate the fire was the result of a single occurrence, which is the Wyoming Supreme Court’s standard in applying the Governmental Claims Act.
Wilking, in making her ruling, referenced the city’s position that the fire’s cause is still undetermined. The judge wrote that a city employee’s speculation that the fire could have been ignited by a gas can discovered in the remains of a slash pile, a cigarette butt that may have been thrown in the fire or by spontaneous combustion demonstrates the lack of evidence.
“If there were in fact multiple causes,” Wilking wrote, “can it then be stated that there were multiple accidents or occurrences?”
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The judge began the approximately 40-minute afternoon proceeding by admonishing lawyers for not following up on the state supreme court’s ruling that put the case back in her court. The district court judge said she only became aware of the ruling by chance, while looking at another case.
“That’s very concerning to me,” Wilking said. “This case needs to move.”
Wilking then asked Gilbertz, who called into the hearing by phone, what his plan was. He said he did not think he had a case directly dismissed by the appellate court before and was not familiar with typical procedure. He said he had been thinking extensively about how to move the case forward, and offered to tell Wilking his thoughts. She did not respond to his offer and then asked to hear from defense attorneys.
Gary Shockey, who represents a trucking company based on Cole Creek Road, asked Wilking to set a trial date and a deadline for parties to furnish discovery. Four other attorneys agreed with his request.
“That might save us an awful lot of work and an awful lot of time,” he said.
But Shockey immediately objected, arguing that jury should determine how many occurrences the fire consisted of.
“They know what our claim is,” Shockey said. “And we don’t have anything else to disclose.”
Wilking then said she would set a date for parties to work out scheduling, noting that she would expect flexibility from lawyers working for large firms. The judge then invited audience members to ask procedural questions.
Juan Saucedo, Jr. told the judge that the fire had left him homeless.
“I’m in dire straits ever since that fire,” he said. “And we need to be heard.”