On Monday, an Oregon jury held electric utility PacifiCorp liable for devastating fires it allegedly started over Labor Day weekend in 2020, awarding tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and potentially billions more in broader damages.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway is the parent company of various utilities, including the Portland one. Property owners filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of others, alleging that PacifiCorp was negligent in failing to turn off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from then-Governor Kate Brown’s chief-of-staff and top fire officials.
The official cause of the Labor Day fires in Oregon that killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers), and damaged an estimated 5,000 houses and structures remains unknown. The fires combined to become one of Oregon’s deadliest natural catastrophes ever.
According to a statement released by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, this ruling is “historic” and “paves the way for potentially billions of dollars in further damages for the class members.” At once, PacifiCorp announced that it will file an appeal.
“Escalating climate change, challenging state and federal forest management, and population growth in the wildland-urban interface are substantial factors contributing to growing wildfire risk,” PacifiCorp said in an emailed statement after the verdict. “These systemic issues affect all Oregonians and are larger than any single utility.”
A month after the fires, 17 homeowners sued PacifiCorp in Multnomah County Circuit Court, and the jury awarded them a total of $73 million for property damage and mental pain. Damage estimates could rise into the billions of dollars range as a result of the jury’s extension of its responsibility decision to cover owners of over 2,500 houses burned in the fires.
Those costs will be calculated after the fact. On Monday afternoon, the jury heard arguments regarding whether or not to award punitive damages against PacifiCorp. Nick Rosinia, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, urged the jury to give punitive damages equivalent to five times the amount already granted for the harm caused by PacifiCorp.
“For its reckless and outrageous action on Labor Day, it’s the only way they will truly get your message,” Rosinia said.The electricity company’s lawyer, Doug Dixon, argued that there was no need for punitive damages. He assured them that the business was not intentionally irresponsible and that safety was a top priority.
Although property owners’ attorneys characterized PacifiCorp as “deep-pocketed,” the corporation is actually $9 billion in debt. Rachelle McMaster, whose home in Otis, Oregon, was burned in the flames, was there in court to hear the judgment.
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The woman, who was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt that proclaimed “keep Earth awesome,” wiped her eyes and held tightly onto her husband’s hand after hearing the message. According to Oregon Public Radio, the seven-week trial concluded with closing arguments last Wednesday.
The plaintiffs claimed that PacifiCorp was negligent because it failed to secure its electrical wires during the holiday weekend’s high winds. During his final statements, plaintiffs’ attorney Cody Berne remarked, “They have no real response to any of this.” (PacifiCorp) is responsible for the fires.
They got rid of all the proof. They’ve shown up in your courtroom to beg off responsibility. The Santiam Canyon fires east of Salem, the Echo Mountain Complex near Lincoln City, the South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point, and the Two Four Two fire near the southwest Oregon town of Chiloquin were all on the table for the jury to decide who was at fault.
The below tweet verifies the news:
PacifiCorp could be on the hook for billions after jury verdict in devastating Oregon wildfires https://t.co/ii2pNmhpDL
— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) June 12, 2023
According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, utility administrators deliberately kept the lights on as they fielded calls from customers reporting damaged equipment. The same leaders, the lawyers claimed, avoided blame throughout the trial by shifting the blame to lower-level employees, the news source reported.
More than half of the class members live in Santiam Canyon, where Dixon argued in his closing remarks that “alleged power line fires” could not have spread to plaintiffs’ homes. He further mentioned that in some of the regions where PacifiCorp was accused of causing harm, the company had no equipment to begin with.
Western electricity firms face a growing threat from wildfires. After a 2018 fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills destroyed approximately 19,000 homes, businesses, and other buildings and nearly leveled the town of Paradise, California, Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 charges of manslaughter.
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