Cal Fire is suing the burger chain for damages caused by the Huasna fire that burned 245 acres.

By Mike Pomranz
November 25, 2019

Few fast food chains are as beloved as In-N-Out, but a new lawsuit suggests that even the most admired companies aren't beyond making mistakes—and also serves as a reminder of just how susceptible California can be to wildfires. The Southern California-based burger brand has reportedly been sued by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, for allegedly sparking a 2017 grass fire in San Luis Obispo County.

According to the San Louis Obispo Tribune, Cal Fire has filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court seeking about $1.2 million in damages for allegedly starting the Huasna Fire in September of 2017. The fire—which apparently began in a rural part of the city of Arroyo Grande—paled in comparison to highly-publicized and destructive fires like the Wine Country Fires, Camp Fire, or the Kincaide Fire, but Cal Fire says that 245 acres were burned, and though no buildings were damaged, the department is hoping to recoup costs associated with suppressing and investigating the fire.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

Those investigations purportedly determined that the fire began when a tractor was mowing grass, and a hot clutch ignited a bit chaff that was stuck to mover which was then blown off, setting fire to the dry grass below. No actual In-N-Out restaurant exists on the land where the fire reportedly started, but the fast food chain owns the property, which is why Cal Fire is looking to hold In-N-Out responsible. The Tribune said it's not clear why In-N-Out owns the property (they do have an Arroyo Grande location, but it's not nearby). The company did not return the paper's request for comment, and no response to the suit has yet been filed in court.

Though this may sound like an innocent mistake, the lawsuit reportedly states, "Wildland fires such as the Huasna Fire ordinarily do not happen unless someone was negligent." Apparently, Cal Fire believes the driver could have intervened to stop the blaze and that the tractor was not properly maintained. That said, the Tribune also notes that these kinds of allegations can be fought in court, sometimes successfully.

Regardless, even if In-N-Out is held responsible for the blaze, the allegations against the company are so tangential to their actual business, it seems unlikely customers would suddenly shun their Double-Doubles. Still, this suit could serve as a reminder to all California companies that no matter what industry you're in, you may want to better vet the people who do your mowing.

UPDATE Tuesday Nov. 26, 2019: In a bizarre twist to this story, on Monday, In-N-Out told the industry site Nation's Restaurant News (NRN) that its dispute with Cal Fire had been "amicably" settled, adding that the chain was "actually uncertain why we have received media attention over an old lawsuit involving a fire that occurred in 2017." And yet, when reached for comment, Cal Fire told NRN that the department could not comment because the case was "ongoing" and had not been settled. Sounds like Nation's Restaurant News may want to put these two parties in touch!

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