PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — On Monday, a jury in Oregon found that PacifiCorp’s electric utility was to blame for the devastating fires over Labour Day weekend in 2020.
The company was ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued, and it was also found responsible for other damages that could push the total award into the billions.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway, which billionaire Warren Buffett runs, owns several utilities, including the one in Portland. The property owners sued on behalf of thousands of other people.
They said that PacifiCorp was negligent in not turning off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from then-Gov. Kate Brown’s chief-of-staff and top fire officials, and that its power lines caused multiple fires.
The Labour Day fires in Oregon, which killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometres), and destroyed up to 5,000 homes and other buildings, have not been given an official reason.
PacifiCorp could be on the hook for billions after jury verdict in devastating Oregon wildfires https://t.co/ii2pNmhpDL
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Together, the fires were one of Oregon’s worst natural tragedies ever. In a written statement, lawyers for the plaintiffs called the ruling “historic” and said it “opens the door to more damages for the class members that could be worth billions of dollars.”
“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 Multnomah County Circuit Court jury gave more than $73 million to 17 homeowners who sued PacifiCorp a month after the fires.
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Each homeowner got between $3 million and $5.5 million for damage to their property and mental stress.
The jury also decided that the fires were the fault of a bigger group of people, including the owners of nearly 2,500 damaged properties.
This could push the cost of damages into the billions of dollars. Damages will be decided on at a later time. Monday afternoon, the jury heard statements about whether or not to make PacifiCorp pay extra money as punishment.
Nick Rosinia, a lawyer for the claimants, told the jury that they should give them five times as many punitive damages as they already have for the damage PacifiCorp caused.
“For its reckless and outrageous action on Labor Day, it’s the only way they will truly get your message,” Rosinia said.
Doug Dixon, an attorney for the power company, said there was no need for excessive damages. He said that the company keeps working on safety and wasn’t careless. Lawyers for the property owners said that PacifiCorp had a lot of money, but the company owes $9 billion.
Rachelle McMaster, whose home in the town of Otis near the Oregon coast was destroyed by the fires, was one of the people in court to hear the decision. She was wearing a tie-dye T-shirt that said, “Keep Earth awesome,” when it was read, she wiped her eyes and grabbed her husband’s hand.
Oregon Public Radio said last Wednesday that the closing statements were the last part of the seven-week trial. The claimants said that PacifiCorp was careless when it didn’t turn off its power lines over the holiday weekend, even though there had been warnings about strong winds.
“They have no real response to any of this,” plaintiffs’ attorney Cody Berne said during closing arguments. “(PacifiCorp) started the fires. They destroyed the evidence. And now they have come before you and are asking not to be held accountable.”
Jurors were to decide if PacifiCorp was to blame for four of these fires: 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 town of Chiloquin in southwest Oregon.
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Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that utility officials kept the power on while line workers took calls about broken electrical equipment. Attorneys for the same officials said at the trial that they didn’t take any responsibility, saying it was the front-line workers’ job to decide when to turn off the power.
In his closing remarks, Dixon noted that “alleged power line fires” in Santiam Canyon, where more than half of the class members live, could not have spread to plaintiffs’ houses. He also said that PacifiCorp didn’t have tools in some places where they were said to have caused damage.
Wildfires are becoming a more significant risk for power companies in the West. Pacific Gas & Electric went bankrupt and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after its equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018.
The fire destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, stores, and other buildings and almost destroyed the town of Paradise, California.