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Oregon jury finds electric utility PacifiCorp liable in devastating wildfires

A resident uses what little water they had stored on their property in Gates, Ore., to put out flames around their neighbor's house on Sept. 9, 2020.
Cassandra Profita
Oregon Public Broadcasting
A resident uses what little water they had stored on their property in Gates, Ore., to put out flames around their neighbor's house on Sept. 9, 2020.

Two days after jurors in Multnomah County found that the utility PacifiCorp was to blame for wildfires in 2020, they ordered the company to pay punitive damages. That’s in addition to the more than $70 million already owed to the plaintiffs in the case.

Punitive damages are intended to act as a deterrent to future negligent behavior in civil cases. In PacifiCorp’s case, Wednesday’s decision by the jury will add to a pot of money headed toward potentially thousands more people who signed up as part of a class action lawsuit against the company.

The jury’s decision will require PacifiCorp to pay 0.25 times any economic and non-economic damages applied in the case. For the 17 named plaintiffs, that is likely to raise their owed damages to somewhere near $90 million.

During its closing arguments, PacifiCorp estimated that such a verdict could cost the company $11 billion in total once the thousands of people affected by the fires in the case are compensated. An exact figure could take some time to determine because it is not clear yet how many homes or other property were damaged inside the fire boundaries of the Santiam Canyon, South Obenchain, 242 and Echo Mountain Complex fires.

Still, the growing financial cost to the utility, owned by the multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, is the largest penalty an Oregon utility has ever faced for its role in starting wildfires.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers called the ruling a just outcome for people who had their lives irreversibly changed in Oregon’s most devastating wildfire season to date.

“The jury’s verdict is extremely gratifying after PacifiCorp refused to accept responsibility for any of the damages caused by its incompetence and utter disregard for people and property on Labor Day 2020,” Cody Berne, lead trial attorney for Stoll Berne in the case, said in a statement.

PacifiCorp declined to comment following the verdict.

During its final pleas to the jury not to impose a strict punitive damages ruling, PacifiCorp lawyers argued that the company, specifically through its Oregon business Pacific Power, has been taking action to adapt to more severe wildfire seasons as a result of climate change.

“Pacific Power has made ... major investments and continues to make major investments in wildfire mitigation, in renewable green energy,” lawyer Douglas Dixon said Tuesday, “and the way Pacific Power can continue to do that is by having the money and the resources available to make those investments.”

Dixon pointed to tree trimming, replacing power lines and other efforts by the company since 2020 to show it has responded to fire risk. While the company employed no meteorologists and had just 12 weather stations in Oregon before the Labor Day 2020 fires, it now has a team of six people forecasting weather and 115 weather stations across the state. He said that kind of work would be halted if jurors levied a heavy penalty, and he speculated the company could go bankrupt.

A similar punitive decision did bankrupt the California utility Pacific Gas & Electric in 2019 after its equipment started several fires, including the deadly Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Since emerging from bankruptcy, some Californians have felt the squeeze of sizable rate hikes to pay for wildfire mitigation.

“The truth is that every fire, including those before Labor Day and any after Labor Day, have changed the way Pacific Power operates,” Dixon told jurors Tuesday.

As OPB previously reported, the substantial cost of the court case is unlikely to be passed onto Pacific Power’s customers. But Bob Jenks of the Oregon Citizens Utility Board, a customer advocacy group, said ratepayers may see their bills rise in coming years as electric utilities invest more to prevent costly fires — and the court rulings that can come out of them.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Ryan Haas