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Department of Natural Resources v. Littlejohn Logging Inc.

as corrected.: March 14, 1991.

THE DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, RESPONDENT,
v.
LITTLEJOHN LOGGING, INC., PETITIONER



Thompson, J. Green, C.j., and Munson, J., concur.

Author: Thompson

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) brought this action against Littlejohn Logging, Inc., to collect the expenses it incurred fighting the Tucker Creek fire in 1987. The fire allegedly was caused by Littlejohn's negligence while acting as a logging contractor on private land. DNR instituted the action pursuant to RCW 76.04.495(1), which reads:

Any person, firm, or corporation: (a) Whose negligence is responsible for the starting or existence of a fire which spreads

on forest land; . . . shall be liable for any expenses made necessary by (a) . . . of this subsection incurred by the state . . . in fighting the fire, . . . if the expense was authorized or subsequently approved by the department.

In an interlocutory ruling, the Superior Court held a jury trial was not a matter of right and struck the jury demand. We granted Littlejohn's motion for discretionary review of this ruling.

For reasons of judicial economy, we also granted DNR's cross motion for discretionary review of the court's denial of its motion for summary judgment on the issue of damages. DNR had contended that if Littlejohn were found negligent, it would be liable under the statute for all of DNR's fire suppression costs and could not question the reasonableness of those expenditures.*fn1

We reverse the denial of a jury trial, but affirm the denial of summary judgment.

Right to Jury Trial

[1] The Washington Supreme Court has summarized the law bearing on the right to a jury trial:

The Washington State Constitution, article 1, section 21 provides that the right to a jury trial shall remain inviolate. We have consistently interpreted this constitutional provision as guaranteeing those rights to trial by jury which existed at the time of the adoption of the constitution. Accordingly, there is a right to a jury trial where the civil action is purely legal in nature. Conversely, where the action is purely equitable in nature, there is no right to a trial by jury.

(Citations omitted.) Brown v. Safeway Stores, Inc., 94 Wash. 2d 359, 365, 617 P.2d 704 (1980). In determining the overall nature of an action, the trial court is accorded wide discretion, giving great weight to the constitutional right to trial by jury. See Brown, at 368 (quoting Scavenius ...


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