(CN) - In an unprecedented environmental verdict, a Los Angeles federal jury ruled that two construction companies must pay more than $36.4 million for damages from a 2002 wildfire that burned over 18,000 acres of Angeles National Forest, the Justice Department announced Wednesday. The verdict marks the first time a jury has decided to award damages based on a wildfire's environmental impact.
The jury ruled that Texas company CB&I Constructors and the defunct Merco Construction Engineers must pay more than $36.4 million for costs related to a June 2002 wildfire in San Francisquito Canyon that government officials say was caused by hot metal sparks from electric grinders.
The companies were building steel reservoirs for a planned community in Santa Clarita.
A CB&I employee negligently directed the hot sparks toward a hillside covered in dry brush, while a Merco employee failed to water down the construction site to prevent the fire, the government argued at trial.
The verdict, decided in a one-day deliberation, is the largest ever awarded in a federal cost-recovery case relating to firefighting. The jury unanimously determined that CB&I was 65 percent liable and Merco was 35 percent liable.
"The jury clearly appreciated the value of the Angeles National Forest and understood the severe damage caused by the fire," said Acting U.S. Attorney George Cardona. The majority of the award - $28.8 million - is for environmental compensation.
"As a result of the fire, both the wildlife of the forest and its human users are faced with issues that include increased erosion, increased risk of future fires and the loss of the use of the forest by the public," Cardona said.
The rest of the award will go toward the costs of fire suppression, replacement of burned signs and markers, and Burned Area Emergency Response.
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