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Department of Natural Resources v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1 of Klickitat County

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

April 30, 2015

The Department of Natural Resources , Respondent ,
Public Utility District No. 1 of Klickitat County , Petitioner

Oral Argument September 10, 2014.

Appeal from Klickitat Superior Court. Docket No: 12-2-00168-1. Judge signing: Honorable Brian Altman. Judgment or order under review. Date filed: 06/24/2013.

Donald G. Stone, Daniel W. Short, Gregory S. Johnson, and William C. Schroeder (of Paine Hamblen LLP ), for petitioner.

Robert W. Ferguson, Attorney General, and Michael J. Rollinger, Assistant, for respondent.

Authored by Laurel H. Siddoway. Concurring: George B. Fearing, Robert E. Lawrence-Berrey.


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[187 Wn.App. 492] Laurel H. Siddoway, C.J.

¶ 1 We granted discretionary review of an order certified by the Superior Court for Klickitat [187 Wn.App. 493] County as warranting immediate review. At issue is whether the Department of Natural Resources has statutory authority to pursue a fire suppression cost recovery claim against a public utility district (PUD) under RCW 76.04.495. Specifically in dispute is whether a municipal corporation, such

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as a PUD, is a " person" (or alternatively a " corporation" ) within the meaning of the fire cost recovery statute.

¶ 2 The superior court denied the Public Utility District No. 1 of Klickitat County's motion to dismiss the department's cost recovery claim but certified pursuant to RAP 2.3(b)(4) that " [a]n immediate appeal ... may materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 78.

¶ 3 We hold that a municipal corporation is a " person" and a " corporation" within the plain meaning of chapter 76.04 RCW and is subject to a civil action to recover fire suppression costs. On that basis we affirm and remand for further proceedings.


¶ 4 In August 2010, a forest fire near Lyle, Washington, burned more than 2,100 acres after a tree fell onto a power line owned and operated by the Public Utility District No. 1 of Klickitat County. The Department of Natural Resources incurred over $1.6 million in costs suppressing the fire. Based on its investigation, the department concluded that the fire was caused by the PUD's negligence in failing to remove the tree, which posed a foreseeable hazard to its electrical lines.

¶ 5 The department commenced this action against the PUD to recover the fire suppression costs under RCW 76.04.495, a provision of the Forest Protection Act, chapter 76.04 RCW (hereafter sometimes " the Act" ), which gives the State the right to recover the costs of suppressing fires negligently started by " any person, firm, or corporation." [187 Wn.App. 494] The PUD moved to dismiss the department's complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted, arguing that (1) municipal corporations are not among the entities identified in RCW 76.04.495 from whom the department can recover fire suppression costs and (2) " the money judgment [the department] seeks as against another taxpayer funded entity of this [s]tate is contrary to Washington law and public policy." CP at 25. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss but certified this controlling question of law as one as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion:

Whether Plaintiff State of Washington Department of Natural Resources has the statutory authority to proceed with a fire suppression cost recovery claim against Defendant Public Utility District No.1 of Klickitat County under RCW 76.04.495.

CP at 78. We granted discretionary review.


¶ 6 The Forest Protection Act was enacted in 1923 and seeks to protect public and private forest lands in the state from the devastation caused by forest fires. It empowers the department to take charge of and direct the work of suppressing forest fires. RCW 76.04.015(3)(b). At issue in this case is the scope of the provision of the Act authorizing the department to recover fire suppression costs from any person, firm, or corporation that is negligently responsible for the start or spread of a fire.

¶ 7 Whether the trial court properly denied the PUD's motion to dismiss is a question of law that we review de novo. San Juan County v. No New Gas Tax, 160 Wn.2d 141, 164, 157 P.3d 831 (2007). The meaning of a statute, on which the court's decision turned, is likewise a legal question reviewed de novo. State v. Roggenkamp, 153 Wn.2d 614, 621, 106 P.3d 196 (2005).

¶ 8 A court's fundamental objective in interpreting a statute is to ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent. [187 Wn.App. 495] Arborwood Idaho, LLC v. City of Kennewick, 151 Wn.2d 359, 367, 89 P.3d 217 (2004). If the statute's meaning is plain on its face, the court must give effect to that plain meaning as an expression of legislative intent. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9-10, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). The plain meaning of a statute is not gleaned solely from the words of the provision being scrutinized but is determined from " 'all that the Legislature has said in the ... related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question.'" State v. Costich, 152 Wn.2d 463, 470, 98 P.3d 795 (2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Campbell & Gwinn, 146 Wn.2d at 11). To determine a statute's

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plain meaning, courts look to " the ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole." State v. Engel, 166 Wn.2d 572, 578, 210 P.3d 1007 (2009).

¶ 9 The PUD's briefing on appeal relies on several canons of construction that it contends support ascribing a narrow meaning to " person" as used in RCW 76.04.495. But it is only if a statute remains ambiguous after a plain meaning analysis that we resort to external sources or interpretive aids, such as canons of construction and case law. Jongeward v. BNSF Ry., 174 Wn.2d 586, 600, 278 P.3d 157 (2012). We are able to resolve the appeal based on the plain meaning of the statute.

History of relevant legislation

¶ 10 The legislature authorized municipalities to acquire and operate public utilities, including electrical utilities, in 1909. Laws of 1909, ch. 150 (" An Act authorizing cities and towns to construct, condemn and purchase, purchase, acquire, add to, maintain, ...

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