In the wake of the largest wildfire in modern California history, three affected fitness businesses are at the forefront of a class action lawsuit that accuses a major Southern California utilities company of negligence.
Health club Platinum Performance Fitness, Summerland, California, consulting company Frost Fit, Montecito, California, and personal trainer Christopher T. Burke, Summerland, California, are among seven regional businesses that on Jan. 24 filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) and parent entity Edison International.
The businesses claim recent personal and business losses are a result of the historic Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides that occurred across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties from Dec. 4, 2017, to Jan. 12, 2018. Southern California Edison stands accused of negligence for failing to properly and safely maintain local electrical infrastructure.
The lawsuit argues the fire and mudslides "could have been prevented" and were caused by "unsafe electrical infrastructure owned, operated, and improperly maintained" by the utilities company.
It states: "SCE had a duty to maintain its electrical infrastructure properly and to ensure surrounding trees and vegetation were trimmed and kept at a safe distance. SCE violated that duty by knowingly operating aging, overloaded, and/or improperly maintained infrastructure. In fact, SCE’s violations had caused fires before, and SCE had been sanctioned numerous times for this before the Thomas Fire began. All the while, it knowingly and habitually underestimated the potential risk, including fire risk, its systems posed."
According to the suit, Frost Fit owner Victoria Frost has been unable to work with her clients because her primary base of operations—the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club in Montecito—was evacuated and later affected by mudslides. It is not expected to reopen until April 1.
Platinum Fitness Summerland was initially closed under an evacuation order, and then closed a second time due to flooding, mudslides and a highway closure. The majority of the club's members are from Montecito, which was also under mandatory evacuated orders. The suit claims the local air quality was so poor that no clients wanted to train.
Christopher T. Burke, a personal trainer whose business is based out of Platinum Fitness Summerland, claims to have been similarly affected by the conditions.
With no direct property damage to the fitness businesses, any loss of revenue due to the fires is unlikely to be covered by insurance policies, Jennifer Urmston Lowe, national accounts manager at Sports & Fitness Insurance Corporation, told Club Industry. If there was additional loss to the fitness businesses due to the mudslides, it would most likely have required a flood policy to be covered, which not all businesses carry.
"For the personal trainers, their loss of income would most likely not be covered by any insurance," Lowe said. "Most trainers working inside a facility that they do not own would not carry a commercial property policy because they do not have an insurable interest in property that could sustain physical damage. Professional liability insurance and general liability insurance policies that individual fitness professionals carry do not include coverage for loss of income."
The Thomas Fire burned approximately 281,893 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, according to local government reports. The fire destroyed at least 1,063 structures, while damaging 280 others.
“We hope our lawsuit will provide justice to those devastated by the fires and mudslides, and help raise awareness of the serious fire dangers and related other dangers still present in thousands of similar Southern California Edison works and systems throughout Southern California," Lexi Hazam, a partner at Lieff Cabraser, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, said in a Jan. 25 media release.