Maggie contractor sues over sawmill fire

By DeeAnna Haney | Aug 21, 2014

A lawsuit has been filed against Haywood Community College board of trustees regarding property that was destroyed when the sawmill on the college campus burned two years ago.

Maggie Valley contractor Kyle Edwards wants compensation for his equipment and personal property that was destroyed in the fire the night of November 11, 2012. However, the college claims that it was Edwards' negligence that caused the fire in the first place.

The old sawmill building had not been used for any classes or programs on campus since the wood products program was discontinued more than a decade ago, but leftover equipment in the building was sold off in a public auction Sept. 22, 2012.

Maggie Valley contractor Kyle Edwards purchased most of the sawmill contents at the auction valued at $350,000, according to court documents. Among the dozens of items purchased were a deluxe sawmill, air compressor, tool box with tools, electric motor, 50-inch circle saw blade, hydraulic saw motor, large chipper and much more.

College officials at the time said they hadn't come up with any solid plans of what they would do with the empty sawmill building before the fire — whether it would be demolished or repurposed. But Edwards' plan was to relocate the purchased component pieces of the mill to Maggie Valley where he planned to open a sawmill and employ between 15 and 17 people.

Buyers supposedly had 30 days to remove any purchased equipment from the sawmill, most of which had been removed before the fire. But, according to court documents, Edwards claims he was never made aware of that rule. Nor was he told until a later date that he would only be allowed to move the purchased property from the sawmill between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and not on the weekends.

Because of that timeframe, he claims in the suit, "He had no opportunity to remove the property upon his schedule but was required to comply with the defendant's schedule, which constituted a substantial interference with the use and enjoyment of the same."

Less than two months after the auction, the sawmill burned down along with Edwards' property. In addition to the items purchased at auction, Edwards' personal crane, Bobcat and air compressor were burned in the fire, estimated at about $80,000.

In the lawsuit, Edwards claims had college officials not restricted the times when he could remove the property, that it would have all been removed from the sawmill before the fire took place. The college's insurance policies through the public school insurance fund and through the Cincinnati Insurance Company refused to pay for Edwards' property loss as a result of the fire.

According to court documents, Edwards claims he was, "in no was responsible for the conduct and cause of the fire and therefore did not by his own conduct contribute to his losses." However, the college has a different claim.

According to the response by the board of trustees through attorney Pat Smathers, there was an initial fire that was caused by Edwards' employees earlier that November day.

"Plaintiff's agents did not fully and adequately extinguish the fire, and the same continued to burn and smolder, resulting in a re-ignition of flames…" according to court documents from the defendant.

It also claims that after the initial fire, Edwards and his employees continued to work in the building using torches to cut metal, which Edwards should have known "would create a dangerous condition due to excessive heat and sparks created by plaintiff's equipment, as well as being aware of flammable material in the building."

The college claims Edwards's negligence was the "sole and proximate cause of the fire."

In early August, the board of trustees made a motion to dismiss the matter, claiming that Edwards should be suing the insurance companies instead.

According to the response, Smathers claims the board does not have any liability to Edwards because of the doctrine of government and sovereign immunity, which protects government agencies from lawsuits.

Edwards claims that by purchasing insurance policies, the board waived its right to immunity. However, the defendant claims that either way, the board is not liable for the property loss.

The board is requesting any further action be taken up between the plaintiff and the insurance agencies.