Fire victim compensation bill moves ahead

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Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, greet Scott Appel, who lost his wife, home, and business in the Lower North Fork Fire, before Wednesday's hearing. (Photo courtesy: Senate Majority Press Office)

DENVER — Lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to raise the cap on damages that victims can claim on account of government wrongdoing after testimony from victims of last year’s Lower North Fork Fire.

That blaze, which caused three deaths and the destruction of dozens of homes, was sparked by a controlled burn set by the state Forest Service.

Last year’s outcry from victims shed light on how low Colorado’s damages caps were in comparison to other states.

The Colorado Governmental Immunity Act currently caps damages victims can seek from the government at $150,000 per person and $600,000 per occurrence.

Only five states have a lower per person cap, and only ten states have a lower per occurrence cap.

“These caps are grossly inadequate,” Scott Appel, who lost his wife in the fire, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Government negligence led to the Lower North Fork Fire.”

Appel, who brought a picture of his wife, Ann, and her eyeglasses, told lawmakers that the new cap, which raises the per person cap to $350,000 and $990,000 per occurrence, is still too low.

“What would you do if you lost everything you have today and your wife is killed?,” Appel said.

The bill also mandates future adjustments, requiring the Secretary of State to adjust the caps based on the Consumer Price Index for Denver/Boulder/Greely every four years, starting in 2018.

The bill, which passed the committee on a 5-0 vote, is sponsored by Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

“Just as we hold Coloradans accountable for their actions, the state needs to be accountable for its actions. We must strike a better balance between government accountability and ensuring our financial stability. Through this bipartisan legislation, we were able to achieve that balance,” said Morse in a statement following the hearing.

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