Federal Government Wins Lawsuit Over Colorado Hayman Fire

December 1, 2008

A federal judge ruled that the federal government doesn’t have to pay for damage caused by the Hayman wildfire, the worst in Colorado history.

U.S. Forest Service worker Terry Barton pleaded guilty to starting the fire in 2002 by burning a letter from her estranged husband. Insurance companies sued the government to recover the $7 million they paid out to cover property damaged in the fire.

U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel said the government is only liable for the actions of its employees if they are performing within the scope of their duties.

A fire ban was in effect when Barton burned the letter in a fire ring while patrolling the Pike National Forest. Daniel said she acted on her own and wasn’t doing the government’s work.

“When Barton violated the Fire Ban she was not doing the work assigned to her, what was necessarily incidental to that work or what was customary in the Forest Service’s business,” Daniel wrote in the decision.

He also said the insurance companies failed to prove that Barton or other Forest Service workers caused property damage by failing to do enough to put out the fire once it started.

Telephone messages left after hours for lawyers for Allstate and State Farm insurance companies weren’t immediately returned.

The Hayman fire burned 138,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes and forced more than 8,000 people to evacuate. The fire was fueled by forests left tinder-dry by a severe drought and burned for 17 days.

Barton served six years in prison for starting the fire and was released in June.

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