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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Insurance companies sue Avista seeking to recover payouts made over 2020 wildfire in Malden, Pine City

Shawn Thornton, right, and son Chris Thornton look over the rubble of their burned home and garage, including his work truck on Sept. 8, 2020, in Malden, Washington.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

More than a dozen insurance companies – which covered more than 40 Malden and Pine City residents, at least four business entities and the town of Malden itself – are suing Avista Utilities in an attempt to recover insurance payouts from a wildfire that destroyed much of the towns in 2020.

The lawsuit was filed March 31 in Spokane County Superior Court, just a day after more than 40 Malden and Pine City residents filed a separate lawsuit. Both lawsuits accuse Avista of negligence and say the company is liable for the fire, based on a state Department of Natural Resources report from May 2021.

The state report found the fire, known as the Babb Road Fire, started when a tree branch fell into Avista power lines. The tree was diseased, damaged and infested with insects.

“A primary cause of wildland fires ignited by utility lines is direct or indirect contact between a tree and a power line,” the March 31 lawsuit reads. “This was or should have been known by Avista.”

The insurance companies are seeking monetary damages of an amount to be determined in court.

Avista representatives said Monday the company is aware of the lawsuit and will participate and cooperate with the legal process. Avista does not comment on pending litigation.

The Babb Road Fire broke out Sept. 7, 2020, in a stand of trees near Babb and Morrow roads and burned approximately 15,266 acres.

A red flag warning in effect on that Monday predicted gusts of 40 to 50 mph, according to the lawsuit. The fire was ultimately pushed southwest toward Malden and Pine City in Whitman County by winds of up to 50 mph.

Citing those conditions, the lawsuit states that Avista should have de-energized power lines in high-risk areas.

“Avista had a duty to operate and maintain its overhead electrical lines in a safe and responsible manner,” the lawsuit reads. “Among Avista’s duties in operating its overhead electrical lines was its duty to perform vegetation management and to timely identify and remove any hazard trees that threatened its electrical lines.”

The fire burned approximately 80% of homes in the towns of Malden and Pine City. Only 40% of the structures in town were insured. The plaintiffs in the March 30 lawsuit filed by residents of the two towns were either uninsured or seeking recovery for damages that weren’t covered by insurance.

The insurance companies suing Avista include Cities Insurance Association of Washington, which provides municipal insurance coverage for the town of Malden. Business entities represented by insurers named in the lawsuit include Field Instruments and Controls and Rocking Arrow K Ranch Inc.

The insurance companies are represented by attorney Bryan Campbell of the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor, which has offices in more than 30 cities including Seattle.