PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A jury in Oregon has found electric utility PacifiCorp responsible for causing devastating fires during Labor Day 2020 in a civil lawsuit.
The jury returned its decision Monday, saying the utility should be held financially liable for homes destroyed in the blaze. The jury awarded millions of dollars each to 17 homeowners who sued PacifiCorp a month after the fires, with most receiving $4.5 million and some $3 million for 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 to more than $1 billion. Those damages will be determined later.
There has been no official cause determined for the 2020 Labor Day fires that killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) in Oregon and destroyed upward of 5,000 homes and structures. The blazes together were one of the worst natural disaster’s in Oregon history.
The Portland utility, one of several owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, didn’t shut off power to its 600,000 customers during the windstorm over Labor Day weekend in 2020 despite warnings from then-Gov. Kate Brown’s chief-of-staff and top fire officials, plaintiffs alleged. Its lines have been implicated in multiple blazes, one of which started in its California service territory and burned into Oregon.
The seven-week trial in Multnomah County Circuit Court wrapped with closing arguments Wednesday, Oregon Public Radio reported.
Plaintiffs allege PacifiCorp was negligent when it didn’t shut off its 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 statements. “(PacifiCorp) started the fires. They destroyed the evidence. And now they have come before you and are asking not to be held accountable.”
Jurors in the Multnomah County trial were to determine PacifiCorp’s responsibility, if any, in four of those blazes: 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.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said utility executives kept the power on even as the company’s line workers took calls about damaged electrical equipment. The same executives, attorneys said, took no responsibility at the trial, saying it was front-line workers who make de-energization decisions, the news outlet reported.
Berne cited a deposition from the utility’s systems operator as an example of the company’s negligence. The operator, Dave Trammell, said no PacifiCorp supervisors worked the night shift when the fires exploded on Labor Day 2020.
“That’s leadership at PacifiCorp: people at the top passing the buck,” Berne said.
In his closing arguments, PacifiCorp lawyer Douglas Dixon detailed “alleged power line fires” in Santiam Canyon, where more than half the class members live, saying they could not have spread to plaintiff’s homes. Plus, PacifiCorp does not have equipment in some areas where they have been accused of causing damage, he said.
In areas where the cause of the fires was not clear, PacifiCorp attorneys and experts often claimed the Beachie Creek Fire was to blame. It started weeks before Labor Day and eventually burned through Santiam Canyon.
The fires were unprecedented, the result of climate change and were an act of God, lawyers for the utility said.
Nicholas Rosinia, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked jurors in closing statements not to be swayed by claims that climate change was to blame. He said without a spark from electrical lines, many of the fires would not have started.
“You have the ability, through your verdict, to tell the survivors of (PacifiCorp’s) fires that they matter, that somebody has heard what happened, understood what happened,” Rosinia told jurors.