Chrysler Blames Government in 2013 Southern California “Chariot” Fire Lawsuit

Author: Kyle Pederson

Insurance companies and, more specifically, subrogation departments, are closely monitoring a number of related lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.  What began as a small brush fire near the Butterfield Ranch in the Anza-Borrego Desert on July 6, 2013, quickly turned into an uncontrollable blaze, eventually consuming Mt. Laguna along with 122 residential structures. The blaze, which has come to be known as the “Chariot Fire,” burned for approximately two (2) weeks and covered approximately 7,050 acres, including over 150 building structures, both residential and commercial.

Among those buildings burned or otherwise damaged by the fire, were 100 cabins located at the Al Bahr Shrine Camp, east of San Diego on Mt. Laguna. The insurers of these cabins, State Farm General Insurance Co. and United Services Automobile Association, filed suit in May 2015, alleging the fire started when a government employee drove a defective Chrysler Jeep through drought-ridden San Diego County.

Several other similar complaints were filed by other carriers in October 2015, including Allstate Insurance Co., Federal Insurance Co., and Safeco Insurance. Similar to the State Farm complaint, the Federal Insurance complaint alleged the Chariot Fire broke out when the government employee drove a BLM-owned 2009 Jeep Wrangler through an area that had experienced a years-long drought. While the employee drove the Jeep through the dry vegetation near Julian, CA, brush accumulated under its chassis area on top of a skid plate, the suit says. The brush ignited on contact with the Jeep’s catalytic converters, and the fire spread across the skid plate, igniting a fuel line to the engine compartment and accelerating as the fuel tank contents drained out of the fuel line, according to the suit.

The government employee then continued to drive the vehicle to multiple locations, igniting different patches of brush at each location. According to the suit, these fires eventually combined to form the Chariot Fire.

In addition to the negligence claim, the insurers also claimed a design defect against Chrysler, since the design of this 2009 jeep was similar to the 2010 Jeep Wrangler. The 2010 Wrangler was subject to a mass recall in 2012 because the vehicle was prone to collecting inflammable debris.

Recently, in April 2016, Chrysler filed a cross-claim against the government alleging the employee’s negligence was the primary cause of the fire, rather than any alleged defect. “Cross-claimant is informed and believes and thereupon alleges that each of the cross-defendants was legally responsible in whole or in part for the injuries and damages, if any, alleged to have been suffered by plaintiffs,” the cross claim reads.  Even if Chrysler is found liable, it asks for “total and complete indemnity” from the government. In Chrysler’s cross-claim, Chrysler also stated there were twelve (12) additional related lawsuits, which had yet to be consolidated.

The government also asserted cross-claims against Chrysler for strict product liability, negligent recall/retrofit and equitable and comparative indemnity, among others.

The amount in controversy in the present case is at least $222,733, and will surely rise significantly given the twelve (12) other unconsolidated cases. Given the amount of insurance carriers involved and the claims alleged against the employee, the government, and Chrysler, this case will continue to be monitored closely by the insurance community.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kyle Pederson’s primary focus at Tyson & Mendes is personal injury, professional liability, and employment litigation.  Contact Kyle at 858.263.4122 or kpederson@tysonmendes.com.

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