A couple who suffered extensive burns after they were caught in the 2008 Tea Fire above Montecito is suing the owners of the property where the fire started.
Lance and Carla Hoffman received approval from the Santa Barbara Superior Court this week to continue their lawsuit against the Tea Garden owners for property negligence prior to the fire. The blaze, which occurred in November of 2008, ignited when a group of ten individuals allegedly trespassed on the Tea Garden property — part of a 350-acre estate in the Santa Ynez Mountain foothills — and then abandoned a bonfire without completely extinguishing the flames.In addition to causing personal injury, the fire burned through 1,940 acres in Montecito and Santa Barbara, destroying over 200 structures and causing millions of dollars in damages.
On Monday, Judge Colleen Sterne overruled property owner Mary K. Robinson’s objections against claims of public and private nuisance, negligence and premise liability. According to the Hoffman’s attorney David Nye, both Hoffmans spent two months in a medically induced coma after they were caught in the fire.
“Each has undergone over 100 surgeries and are each facing quite a few more surgeries and procedures in their future,” Nye said. “The emotional trauma has been equally horrific. They are extremely traumatized and will most likely be in counseling for years.”
According to Nye, the property owners did not take adequate measures to protect their land from unauthorized use.
“The public nuisance charge means that the public as a whole has suffered consequences as a result of the property being used for countless recreational activities,” Nye said. “The property owners did not properly secure the property and take steps to keep trespassers off.”
The prosecution’s court claims list the medical costs to deal with the couple’s injuries at over $5 million. Montecito Fire Dept.’s Public Information Officer Geri Ventura said the department created a fund alongside the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust to assist the Hoffmans with their medical expenses.
“The Hoffmans were the most injured in terms of significant injuries as a result of the fire,” Ventura said. “We received much contact from the public asking what they could do to help and we were very happy to assist.”
The couple is also filing claims against the individuals allegedly responsible for starting the fire.
“The civil suits are still in the middle of litigation and from my knowledge they currently have found eight of ten students held responsible,” Nye said.
Nye said the couple is pursuing charges in the hopes of setting a future legal precedent for landholders.
“They primarily want the property owner to take proper steps so this does not happen to anyone else,” Nye said. “Secondly, they want the students involved to take responsibility for their actions. The motivating factor here is not finance — it is having people do the right things.”
The court will reconvene to consider the case on June 13.