OAN’s Brooke Mallory
1:04 PM – Tuesday, June 13, 2023
A jury in Oregon found PacifiCorp responsible for causing the devastating fires during Labor Day weekend in 2020, ordering the company to pay tens of millions to 17 homeowners who sued and found the company liable for broader damages.
Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha, Nebraska-based financial giant founded by billionaire Warren Buffett, owns various utilities in Portland, Oregon. The property owners, who were suing on behalf of a class of thousands of others, claimed that PacifiCorp was negligent in failing to turn off their power lines to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from then-Governor Kate Brown’s chief-of-staff and fire officials.
However, there has still been no official determination of the initial cause of the Labor Day fires in Oregon, which killed nine people, burnt over 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers), and damaged up to 5,000 residences and structures. The combination of the fires was one of the deadliest natural catastrophes in the state’s history.
It “paves the way for potentially billions of dollars in further damages for the class members,” according to a statement written by attorneys for the plaintiffs.
PacifiCorp quickly declared that the company 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 a statement after the verdict. “These systemic issues affect all Oregonians and are larger than any single utility.”
The jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court awarded more than $73 million to 17 homeowners who filed a lawsuit against PacifiCorp a month after the fires, with each getting between $3 million and $5.5 million for physical property damage and mental distress.
The jury also extended their judgment of guilt to a bigger class that included the owners of almost 2,500 houses burned in the fires, potentially pushing the cost of damages far into the billions. These damages will be assessed in the upcoming future.
On Monday afternoon, the jury deliberated on whether to make PacifiCorp pay punitive damages as well. Plaintiffs’ counsel Nick Rosinia urged that they award punitive damages totalling five times what they have already been granted for the damages 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.
A member of counsel for the electricity company, Doug Dixon, claimed that no punitive damages were required. According to him, the firm is still working on safety and was not recklessly irresponsible. While attorneys for the property owners represented PacifiCorp as extremely wealthy, the business is $9 billion in debt.
Rachelle McMaster, whose house in the town of Otis was burned in the flames, was among those in court for the verdict. She dried her eyes and grasped her spouse’s hand after it was read, wearing a tie-dye T-shirt that said “keep Earth awesome.”
According to Oregon Public Radio, the seven-week trial concluded on Wednesday with closing arguments.
“They have no real response to any of this,” said Cody Berne, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “(PacifiCorp) started the fires. They destroyed the evidence. And now they have come before you and are asking not to be held accountable.”
PacifiCorp’s involvement in four of the fires was to be determined by jurors. 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 in the southwest Oregon town of Chiloquin.
According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, utility administrators left the power on even while the company’s line personnel responded to reports about broken electrical equipment. The same officials, lawyers argued, took no responsibility at the trial, claiming that de-energization choices are made by front-line personnel.
Dixon said in his closing remarks that “alleged power line fires” in Santiam Canyon, where more than half of the class members reside, could not have spread to the plaintiffs’ houses. Furthermore, PacifiCorp lacks equipment in some regions where they have been accused of causing harm, he claimed.
The risk of wildfires is becoming increasingly dangerous for Western power firms. Pacific Gas & Electric filed bankruptcy and pled guilty to 84 charges of manslaughter following a fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2018 that burned approximately 19,000 homes, businesses, and other structures and nearly obliterated the town of Paradise, California.
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