Companies share $16M in facilities fire settlement

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Companies share $16M in facilities fire settlement By Quintin Cushner/Staff Writer Three companies were awarded more than $16 million for damages sustained during a massive 2001 fire at a strawberry warehouse complex in Santa Maria. The blaze started after a damaged lighting fixture at the facility ignited a stack of cardboard strawberry boxes, according to Santa Maria Fire Chief Frank Ortiz. The Fire Department’s investigation, which Ortiz said held up to scrutiny during the lawsuit proceedings, also determined that a worker had damaged the light before the fire, and that it was never repaired, Ortiz said. Casiano Berry Supplies, Inc., which assembled and stored the cardboard boxes, was the defendant in the lawsuit, which was heard in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. Casiano’s lawyers had experts testify during the trial that the light did not cause the blaze, and suggested that an arsonist possibly started a separate fire at the facility, Casiano attorney Steve Joffe said. The fire, considered the biggest in Santa Maria’s history, occurred at the southwest corner of Stowell and Blosser roads and damaged about 120,000 square feet of the 600,000 square foot agricultural complex, Ortiz said. The facility’s owner, National Cold Storage, and a company that leased space at the site, California Giant, Inc. were awarded damages against Casiano, as was the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. Fireman’s Fund insured Frozsun Foods, Inc. and Sunrise Growers, Inc., two other companies which also leased space at the property, according to court documents. Casiano, which is now out of business, also had its facilities at the property destroyed in the fire, according to the firm’s attorney. Casiano was based in Oxnard and Santa Maria, Joffe said. A Santa Maria jury ruled unanimously Nov. 6 that Casiano was liable for negligence and trespass against National Cold Storage and Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company and negligent against California Giant in the fire. Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville announced the damage award on March 24. Since Casiano is out of business, lawyers were unable to represent the company during the trial’s damage phase, Joffe said. Watsonville-based California Giant received about $6.5 million in the judgment, the Paso Robles-based National Cold Storage received about $5 million and Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company received about $4.5 million. Since Casiano is no longer in business, it’s questionable whether any of the companies will be fully paid, Joffe said. Attorney Dean Alper, who represented Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, said he may try to recover damages directly from the owners of Casiano. Twelve fire agencies and 120 firefighters worked to extinguish the 48-hour fire, which caused no injuries, Ortiz said. * Staff writer Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at April 1, 2004 :nav Source:

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