Appeals court upholds dismissal of case against resort after Poinsettia fire

A state appellate court on Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit that sought to blame a destructive and costly 2014 fire in Carlsbad on the resort where the blaze is suspected to have started.

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal found that the plaintiff, Axis Insurance Company, failed to show it had a case that could be tried as to whether Omni Hotels Management Corp. had caused or exacerbated the fire that started at Omni La Costa Resort and Spa.

Omni had been able to show that “Axis could not establish Omni's actions or inactions were a substantial factor” in causing the fire, according to the opinion, written by Presiding Justice Judith McConnell.

Associate Justice Patricia Benke concurred.

Appellate attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Poinsettia fire started mid-morning May 14, 2014, and is believed to have begun in vegetation near a concrete golf cart path close to the seventh fairway of the golf course.

Propelled by hot, dry Santa Ana winds, the burning brush quickly roared into a 600-acre blaze as it hopscotched through an upscale neighborhood and chewed into a business park.

The fire — one of several in North County that day — destroyed five houses, 18 apartment units and one commercial building. It caused $24.5 million in damage.

Fire investigators officially ruled the cause as undetermined, unable to rule out that it had been started by a cigarette.

Omni had allowed smoking on the course. Although there had been two smokers — one who smoked cigarettes, the other smoked cigars — in a golf foursome that morning, there was no evidence that either had been smoking on the seventh hole.

In the lawsuit, the insurance company asserted that Omni had caused the damage “by allowing smoking on its golf course or by using combustion-engine maintenance and beverage carts not equipped with spark arrestors,” according to the ruling.

An expert witness had testified that the possible cause of the blaze was either smoking materials or a spark from a beverage cart at the resort.

The initial suit, filed in October 2014, included several plaintiffs. Last year, San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis dismissed the case in favor of the defense. Axis appealed.

In a dissenting opinion filed Tuesday, Associate Justice William Dato pointed to the plaintiff’s expert’s findings in support of his opinion that there was an issue that could be tried in front of a jury.

“If you have only two reasonable possibilities as to the cause of the fire, and there is substantial evidence that the defendant's negligence was responsible for both, it necessarily follows that defendant's negligence, more likely than not, was the cause of the fire,” Dato wrote.

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