March 31, 2014

By Claudia Grisales

American-Statesman Staff

Bastrop-based Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative has settled dozens of lawsuits filed by insurance companies and individual members as a result of the 2011 Labor Day fires, according to court documents.

The nonprofit electric utility had been accused of gross negligence in the most destructive fire in Texas history, which consumed nearly 34,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 homes and left two people dead.

The amount of the settlements, and the terms, were not disclosed.

“Bluebonnet’s insurance carrier has settled the lawsuits with nearly all of the plaintiffs in the Bastrop County Complex wildfire,” Mark Rose, Bluebonnet’s general manager, said in a statement Monday. “This settlement is a positive outcome for Bluebonnet and will have no negative financial impact on co-op members.”

At least 70 lawsuits were filed by insurance companies, including Travelers, Farmers and United States Automobile Association, and other individual members against the utility after the massive 2011 fire.

“Plaintiffs will show that all matters in controversy between Plaintiffs and Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative have been fully and completely resolved and settled,” the settlement documents read.

A suit filed by Central Texas attorney William Rossick in September 2011 on behalf of several customers was also among the settled cases. The plaintiffs in the case were seeking compensation for personal injury, property damage, mental anguish, and past and future medical expenses.

“The people that I represent are looking to make sure that this is something that sends a message to Bluebonnet and doesn’t happen again,” Rossick said in a 2011 statement.

On Sept. 4, 2011, fallen trees knocked down Bluebonnet power lines, sparking a wildfire on Charolais Drive in the Circle D subdivision just west of Texas 21, according to a Texas Forest Service report. A second fire ignited four miles away when a dead tree fell on another power line on Schwantz Ranch Road. The two fires merged near Cardinal Drive and swept south, blown by a steady wind.

Most of the lawsuit settlements were reached March 14, while another settlement was reached with the Philadelphia Indemnity and Markel insurance companies March 24, court documents said.

However, some lawsuits still remain outstanding.

Bluebonnet is also proceeding with its case against a tree-trimming company charged with maintaining vegetation along its power lines.

In September, the utility filed suit seeking more than $35 million from Asplundh Tree Expert Co. for repairs and other costs, including attorneys fees. Bastrop contracted with Asplundh, based in Pennsylvania, in January 2005, and said the tree-trimming firm assumed responsibility and liability for any destruction of property not caused by negligence on behalf of Bluebonnet.

Bluebonnet “will vigorously pursue our interests through the legal process,” Rose said.

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