Family of Dozer Driver Who Died in Big Sur Fire Drops Suit Against State

Robert Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died July 26, 2016, when his bulldozer overturned while trying to access a proposed fire line near Big Sur. (Cal Fire)

The relatives of a private contractor killed in last year’s massive Soberanes Fire near Big Sur have given up pursuing their wrongful death lawsuit against the state of California.

Robert Reagan, 35, died after the bulldozer he was operating tipped over down an embankment several days after the epic Monterey County wildfire began in July 2016.

His widow, Morgan Kemple, and two young daughters filed a lawsuit in March, blaming Cal Fire for his death. Their suit sought compensatory damages and claimed that the firefighting agency was negligent in supervising operation of the dozer.

But a Monterey County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit last month after the family decided to end its legal bid.

In court papers, the family’s lawyer, Cyrus Shahriari of Beverly Hills, wrote the suit was being dropped because his clients faced a California law that makes it difficult to win negligence claims against state government on incidents involving firefighting injuries.

The development left one Bay Area expert on employment law shaking her head.

“The perverse outcome is that his family has nothing,” said Veena Dubal, an associate professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “It’s a tragic situation.”

The company that employed Reagan was not providing its employees with workers’ compensation coverage at the time of the crash, which has made it difficult for his family to receive benefits from his death.

“I don’t think there is any sane person who would look at this situation, this man who was risking his life to save people and property, and think his young daughters and wife should be left with nothing,” Dubal said.

Kemple has not responded to requests for comment about the decision to drop the lawsuit. Last April, she said the lack of workers’ compensation made it tough for her young family to get by.

Separately, Monterey County prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the small firm that employed Reagan, Czirban Concrete Construction. Among the charges is insurance fraud and failure to provide workers’ comp. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 14.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has fined Czirban tens of thousands of dollars, and the Contractors State License Board has suspended the company’s license.

Word of the Reagan family’s dropped lawsuit comes as state workplace regulators investigate the private contractor that employed a water truck driver killed last month in Napa County while helping battle the Nuns Fire, because it also failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance.

Garrett Paiz, a 38-year-old volunteer firefighter from Noel, Missouri, died Oct. 16 after his truck overturned as he was descending Oakville Grade. The California Highway Patrol is looking into the causes of the crash.

Family of Dozer Driver Who Died in Big Sur Fire Drops Suit Against State 6 November,2017Ted Goldberg

  • Vanessa Lynn Preasmeyer-Harris

    It sucks that he died. My heart goes out to his family BUT, as the wife of a firefighter, daughter of a firefighter and former firefighter myself we know the job is risky and accidents happen. That is why we plan with life insurance and work so hard to train with safety in mind. There are MANY MANY firefighters that have died in the line of duty but you don’t see the wives sueing when bad things happen.

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city’s fire department and the Bay Area’s refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor