APPEALS COURT RULES 2007 FIRE SURVIVOR CAN RECOVER DAMAGES FROM SDG&E FOR EMOTIONAL DISTRESS

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By Miriam Raftery

February 9, 2017 (Poway) –Judge O'Rourke on the Fourth District Court of Appeal has issued a decision finding that Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss erred in not allowing 2007 wildfire survivor William Michael Hensley to present evidence of emotional distress damages.

According to the court decision, William Hensley was out of town when the wildfire forced his wife, Linda, and their daughter to evacuate.  Worried about their safety, he came home early and drove with Linda to a nearby location where they watched the fire burn houses close to theirs, fearing  that everything  had been lost.  Their house was damaged and a large grove of avocado trees burned down.

Hensley suffers from Crohn’s disease, though it was under control before the fire.  His lawyer, Manuel Corrales Jr., has argued that stress and frustration over the losses led to a worsening of William’s condition as well as loss of income due to his inability to work.

His doctor has attested that “beyond a measure of reasonable medical certainty…the stress created by the 2007 San Diego fires caused an increase of disease activity, necessitating frequent visits, numerous therapies, and at least two surgeries since that time.”

SDG&E argued that Hensley’s stress should not be compensated because he wasn’t at home when the fire itself occurred.

The Hensleys and SDG&E had entered into a settlement agreement , however it had a clause stating if the exclusion of emotional distress damages was overturned on appeal and if a trial for emotional distress damages occurred, SDG&E would pay the Hensleys the additional sum of money.

The Appeals Court judgment states, “But such a trial is precluded by the parties’ conditional settlement, which permitted this appeal.  Our reversal gives the Henselsy what the settlement contemplates, which is a determination in the Hensleys’ favor on the legal issue presented.  The judgment is reversed. The Hensleys shall recover their costs on appeal.”

Judges Huffman and Benke concurred in the agreement.