PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon jury on Monday found electric utility PacifiCorp responsible for causing devastating fires during the 2020 Labor Day weekendand ordered the company to pay tens of millions of dollars to 17 homeowners who sued and found it liable for broader damages that could push the total award into the billions.
The Portland utility is one of several owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. The property owners, suing on behalf of a class of thousands of others, alleged that PacifiCorp negligently failed to shut off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from then-Gov. Kate Brown̵[ads1]7;s chief of staff and top fire officials, and that the power lines were responsible for several fires.
No official cause has been determined for the Labor Day fires, which killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square kilometers (4,856 sq mi) in Oregon and destroyed over 5,000 homes and structures. The fires combined were one of the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history.
In a written statement, the plaintiffs’ lawyers called the decision historic and said it “paves the way for potentially billions of dollars in additional damages for the class members.”
PacifiCorp immediately said it would appeal.
“Escalating climate change, challenging state and federal forest management, and population growth at the wildland-urban interface are significant factors contributing to increasing wildfire risk,” PacifiCorp said in an emailed statement after the ruling. “These systemic issues affect all Oregonians and are bigger than any single utility.”
A Multnomah County Circuit Court jury 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 finding to a larger class including the owners of nearly 2,500 properties damaged in the fires, which could push the price tag for damages into the billions of dollars. These damages will be determined later.
The jury heard testimony Monday afternoon on whether to make PacifiCorp pay punitive damages. Nick Rosinia, a plaintiff’s attorney, told jurors they should award punitive damages totaling five times what they have already been awarded for the harm PacifiCorp caused.
“For their reckless and outrageous action on Labor Day, that’s the only way they’re really going to get your message across,” Rosinia said.
Doug Dixon, an attorney for the power company, insisted that no punitive damages were warranted. The company continues to work on safety and was not recklessly negligent, he said. And while lawyers for the property owners described PacifiCorp as deep-pocketed, the company is $9 billion in debt.
Among those in court for the sentencing was Rachelle McMaster, whose home in the town of Otis near the Oregon coast was destroyed in the fires. Wearing a tie-dye T-shirt with the words “keep the earth awesome”, she wiped her eyes and clasped her spouse’s hand after it was read.
The seven-week trial concluded with closing arguments last Wednesday, Oregon Public Radio reported.
The plaintiffs alleged that PacifiCorp was negligent when it failed to shut down power lines despite extreme wind warnings over the holiday weekend.
“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 PacifiCorp’s liability in four of those fires: the Santiam Canyon fire east of Salem; Echo Mountain Complex near Lincoln City; the South Obenchain fire near Eagle Point; and the Two Four Two fire near the southwestern Oregon town of Chiloquin.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said utility managers kept the power on even as company linemen answered calls about damaged electrical equipment. Those same managers, lawyers said, took no responsibility during the trial, saying they were front-line workers making decisions about energy solutions, the news outlet reported.
In his closing arguments, Dixon said “alleged power line fires” in Santiam Canyon, where more than half of the class members live, could not have spread to the plaintiffs’ homes. In addition, PacifiCorp does not have equipment in any areas where it was accused of causing damage, he said.
The risk of forest fires is becoming increasingly burdensome for power companies in the West. Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of murder after the neglected equipment caused a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that destroyed nearly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings and nearly razed the town of Paradise, California.
Johnson reported from Seattle. Mark Thiessen in Anchorage contributed.