Articles/Media

firelawsuitEDIT

Austin Statesman November 18, 2015

A group of 22 Bastrop County families filed suit last week against the owner of the Luecke Farm, alleging negligence led to the Hidden Pines fire, which burned nearly 4,600 acres and destroyed 64 structures in October.

Attorneys William Rossick and Robert Kizer filed the petition in the 335th District Court in Bastrop County Nov. 12 on behalf of the families. At least 11 of the plaintiffs lost their homes and others suffered damage to their properties as a result of the blaze.

The Texas A&M Forest Service ruled last week that the fire was “accidentally” started by a Bush Hog mower overheating or creating a spark that ignited dry grass at the Luecke Farm. Before the report was concluded, Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape announced Oct. 20 that investigators narrowed down the cause to overheating farming equipment or an illegal burn pile.

The attorneys representing the families, however, say many questions about the fire’s cause remain unanswered.

“I think, if you’ll check, you’ll find there’s no community in Texas that has gone through fires like this in the last five years back to back,” Rossick told reporters in front of Bastrop County’s courthouse on Nov. 12. “I think something has to be done, and I think this civil lawsuit is part of the process to identifying why this fire happened and more importantly what can be done to prevent it.”

Rossick and Kizer had represented the largest number of clients in the 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire litigation. Based on their past experience, Rossick said the Forest Service focuses on looking for criminal activity in fire investigations, not overall liability.

The families are requesting a jury trial and are seeking more than $1 million in damages from Giddings resident Jimmie Luecke and his company, the Jimmie Luecke Children Partnership Ltd., owners of the expansive farmland where the fire started.

The attorneys argue in the petition that the Lueckes “failed in their duty to exercise reasonable care when they engaged in conduct which caused the ignition of combustible or vegetative material outside of an enclosure which serves to contain all flames and/or sparks.”

Because Bastrop County was under a burn ban and the National Weather Service had issued an elevated fire weather warning for Oct. 13, the plaintiffs claim the Lueckes violated “the spirit and the letter” of the ban, according to the petition.

“They started the spark — it doesn’t matter how it started or why it started or otherwise,” Kizer said in an interview. “They breached the burn ban right then.”

Jeff Ray, a San Antonio-based attorney representing Luecke, couldn’t be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

“The Luecke family is saddened by this tragedy. Not only for their ranch, but also for the property and homes that were destroyed in the fire,” Ray told the Bastrop Advertiser on Oct. 22. “However, we believe everyone acted as quickly and as responsibly as possible on the ranch.”

The plaintiffs claim in the petition that Luecke failed to “adequately operate and/or maintain” the mower and failed to deploy “adequate fire suppression measures, personnel and/or equipment to extinguish unintended fires.” The petition also alleges trespassing when the fire moved from Luecke’s farm to surrounding private property.

Plaintiff Dennis Moninger, who lost his home in the blaze, said he thinks someone needs to be held accountable.

“It’s very frustrating, the Texas Forest Service using the word ‘accidental’ — as if that’s the end of the day,” Moninger said. “It’s like I stepped into a puddle and my feet accidentally got wet. But that’s not the case here, you accidentally destroyed the lives of several hundred people.”

Rossick and Kizer have signed a 23rd client, but didn’t do so in time to be included in the Nov. 12 petition. They expect to add 10 to 15 more plaintiffs in the coming days.