The State Worker

Tell me more, judge urges family seeking Cal Fire death benefits

A DC-10 tanker drops fire retardant to combat a wildfire near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday, June 17, 2016.
A DC-10 tanker drops fire retardant to combat a wildfire near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday, June 17, 2016. AP

A Sacramento judge has decided to continue hearing arguments in a dispute over whether Cal Fire should pay death benefits to the surviving family of a contract firefighter pilot killed in the line of duty.

The case, which has been in Sacramento Superior Court since last summer, started with allegations that Cal Fire officials at the highest levels misled survivors and held back information about a state law that requires the department to pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. If all the families whose loved ones died under those circumstances received payment, the benefits would total in the millions of dollars, their attorney Paul Goyette has said.

Judge David Brown heard arguments Wednesday afternoon and decided to bring the parties back for more debate on July 13. Although Brown issued a tentative ruling on Tuesday that agreed with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection position that the law didn’t apply in this instance, the continuation signals he’s still weighing whether the law applies only when the injury would be actionable if inflicted by a private person. That legal standard applied in several cases that involved lawsuits against the government that Brown cited in his tentative decision.

“Here ... the alleged resulting injury, i.e. not receiving the ... one-time death benefit ‘is one which by its very nature could not exist in an action between private persons,’ ” Brown wrote, citing a phrase from one of the several court decisions he said set precedent for his decision.

Furthermore, Brown wrote, he knew of no lawsuit that made a death benefits claim against a decedent’s government employer by survivors.

Brown could have issued a final decision immediately after he heard Wednesday’s debate, or he could have taken time to think about the arguments and then publish a decision. It is rare that judges change their tentative rulings.

The plaintiffs have a few options, assuming they lose. They could accept the decision and end their fight. They could to sue again under some different legal theory. Or they could take the decision to Sacramento’s 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Goyette said an appeal “is a really strong possibility.”

Editor’s note, 4:25 p.m.: This post was updated with information from Tuesday’s court hearing.