PacifiCorp may be on the hook for billions after jury verdict in devastating Oregon wildfires

PORTLAND, OR (AP) — An Oregon jury on Monday found electric utility PacifiCorp liable for causing devastating fires over the Labor Day weekend in 2020.and ordered the company to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and found liable for broader damages that could push total compensation into the billions.

The Portland facility is one of many owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment group Berkshire Hathaway. The realtors, who sued on behalf of a class of thousands of others, alleged that PacifiCorp negligently failed to cut power to 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from the government at the time. Chief of Staff Kate Brown and senior fire officials, and that power lines were responsible for multiple fires.

There was no official specific cause for the May Day fires, which killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) in Oregon, and destroyed over 5,000 homes and structures. Together, the fires were one of the worst natural disasters in Oregon history.

In a written statement, attorneys for the plaintiffs called the decision historic and said it “paves the way for potential billions of dollars in other damages for the class members.”

Pacificcorp immediately said it would appeal.

“Escalating climate change, challenging forest management at the state and federal levels, and population growth at the wilderness-urban interface are substantial contributing factors to the increased wildfire risk,” Pacificcorp said in an emailed statement after the ruling. “These systemic issues affect all Oregonians and are greater than any single utility.”

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A jury in Multnomah County Court awarded more than $73 million to 17 homeowners who sued PacifiCorp a month after the fires, each receiving between $3 million and $5.5 million for physical damage to their property and emotional distress.

The jury also applied its liability findings to a larger class including the owners of nearly 2,500 properties damaged in the fires, which could push the damages into billions of dollars. Those damages will be determined at a later time.

The jury heard testimony Monday afternoon on whether PacifiCorp should pay punitive damages. Nick Rosenia, the plaintiffs’ attorney, told the jury that they must award punitive damages five times what was actually awarded for the damage caused by Pacificcorp.

“Because of her indiscretions and outrageous actions on Labor Day, this is the only way to really get your message across,” said Rosinha.

Doug Dixon, the attorney for the electric company, insisted there were no punitive damages. He said the company continues to work on safety and has not been recklessly negligent. And while lawyers for the property owners describe PacifiCorp as an investor, the company is $9 billion in debt.

Among those appearing in court for sentencing was Rachel McMaster, whose home in Otis, near the Oregon coast, was destroyed in the fires. Wearing a tie-dye shirt that read “Keep the Earth Wonderful,” she wiped her eyes and clasped her husband’s hand after reading it.

The seven-week trial ended with closing arguments last Wednesday. Oregon Public Radio mentioned.

Prosecutors alleged that PacifiCorp was negligent when it did not shut down power lines despite warnings of high winds over the weekend.

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“They don’t have a real response to any of this,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Cody Byrne, said during closing arguments. (PacifiCorp) lit the fires. They destroyed the evidence. And now they have come before you and ask not to be held accountable.”

Juries were to determine PacifiCorp’s liability in four of those fires: the Santiam Canyon fires east of Salem; the Echo Mountain complex near the city of Lincoln; the South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point; and the Two Four Two fire near the town of Chiloquin in southwestern Oregon.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said utility executives maintained power even while company line workers took calls about damaged electrical equipment. The same executives, the lawyers said, did not assume any responsibility at trial, saying that it was the front-line workers who made the divestment decisions, the attorneys said.

In his closing arguments, Dixon said that the “alleged power line fires” in Santiam Canyon, where more than half of the class members live, could not have spread to the plaintiff’s homes. In addition, PacifiCorp does not have equipment in some areas where they have been accused of causing damage, he said.

Wildfire risks are becoming increasingly perilous for energy companies in the West. Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter After its discarded equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses, and other buildings and ravaged the city of Paradise, California.

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Johnson reported from Seattle. Mark Thiessen in Anchorage contributed.

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