A Sandoval County jury found Wednesday that negligence on the part of two electric utilities resulted in the 156,000-acre Las Conchas Fire, at the time the largest blaze in New Mexico history.
The fire broke out in 2011 when a gust of wind caused an aspen tree to fall onto a Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative power line located on Forest Service land. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. provided wholesale electricity distributed by the cooperative.
Following four weeks of testimony in state District Court, the jury deliberated for about six hours before returning a verdict, which required support by at least 10 jurors.
The jury found that both JMEC and Tri-State were negligent, and that their negligence caused damages to the plaintiffs. They further found that JMEC was 75 percent responsible, Tri-State was 20 percent responsible, and that the Forest Service was 5 percent responsible.
Throughout the trial, plaintiffs held that JMEC and Tri-State should have had a procedure in place that would have recognized the aspen as posing a hazard to the line. Plantiffs’ attorney Tom Tosdal said in closing statements that the tree was diseased and leaning toward the line.
Jemez said they had a tree trimming program in place, but it would have been impossible for linemen to see the tree, which was located on private property about 50 feet from the cooperative’s right of way.
Al Green, an attorney for JMEC, declined to comment on the verdict other than to say that jurors performed their duties conscientiously.
“We accept their decision,” he said.
The jury also determined that JMEC and Tri-State were not operating as a joint venture or joint enterprise. JMEC is one of dozens of member cooperatives that buy wholesale electricity from Tri-State, and the company’s attorneys held that the two were in a cooperative relationship and did not operate as a joint venture or enterprise.
Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey said that the company was disappointed in the jury’s decision but thankful for its affirmation of the cooperative business model.
“We appreciate the jury’s recognition of the cooperative business model and that JMEC and Tri-State operate independently,” Boughey said in a statement.
Attorney Mark Dow, who represents about 250 of the case’s more than 300 plaintiffs, said after the decision was read that he was very pleased.
“These clients had no power, no redress,” he said. “They received it today.”
The next step is a damages trial, Dow said, where each plaintiff’s losses are awarded individually.
He declined to estimate the damage total, but said after a total amount is decided, JMEC will be required to pay 75 percent of the total, and Tri-State 20 percent. That amount is based on the allocation of fault that jurors agreed on.
Though they also assigned 5 percent of the blame to the U.S. Forest Service, Dow said he does not believe plaintiffs can seek damages from that agency.
He expected the damages trial to take place within the next four to six months.