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In recent years, wildfires have become an increasingly alarming and destructive force. Not only do they devastate the environment and ecosystems, but they also lead to significant losses of property and, tragically, lives.
After wildfire destroys everything, a question often arises: who is to be held accountable? In this blog, we’ll explore a recent PacifiCorp wildfire lawsuit and its settlement updates.
Oregon Wildfires 2020
The Labor Day weekend of 2020 will forever be imprinted in the memories of Oregonians. On September 7, 2020, a number of fires broke out in extremely hot and dry conditions. They quickly expanded over several days of strong winds, with average sustained speeds of 20 to 30 mph and gusts of 50 to 60 mph.
As a result, numerous fires spread throughout the state, scorching more than a million acres—more than twice the 10-year average. Furthermore, more than 400,000 people were evacuated, and over 500,000 people were placed in evacuation warning areas as a result of the over 1,000,000 acres that burned.
This is one of the most devastating wildfires in the state’s history. These fires were caused by a variety of factors, including lightning, human activities, and unknown origins.
The Archie Creek Fire, Beachie Fire, Holiday Farm Fire, Riverside Fire, and Lionshead Fire, collectively referred to as the “mega-fires,” were among the most destructive, causing widespread evacuations and immeasurable ecological and property damage.
Here are some details about the major fires and their causes:
Archie Creek Fire: Started on September 8 with an unknown cause, it destroyed 109 homes and burned 131,542 acres.
Lionshead Fire: Started on August 16 due to lightning and merged with the Beachie Creek Fire on September 8. The combined fires briefly renamed the Santiam Fire, destroyed 264 structures and burned 204,469 acres.
Beachie Creek Fire: It began on August 16 with an unknown cause. After merging with the Lionshead Fire, it led to the destruction of nearly 1,400 structures, five fatalities, and the burning of 193,573 acres.
Holiday Farm Fire: This fire started on September 7, probably as the result of a downed power line, and destroyed 768 structures, causing 1 fatality and burning 173,393 acres.
Riverside Fire: Human-caused, began on September 8, destroying 139 structures, burning 138,054 acres, and causing four injuries.
Almeda Drive Fire: A human-caused fire suspected of being arson that started on September 8. It destroyed over 3,000 structures and resulted in three fatalities.
Two Four Two Fire: It began on September 7 with an unknown cause, resulting in the destruction of 48 structures.
Echo Mountain Complex Fire: Started on September 7 due to an unknown cause, destroying 293 structures.
South Obenchain Fire: Began on September 8 with an unknown cause, destroying 89 structures.
What Damage Do Wildfires Cause?
The environmental impact of the fires was profound. The loss of forested areas not only affected wildlife habitats but also impacted air quality across the state and beyond. Smoke from the fires led to hazardous air quality levels, posing serious wildfire health effects to residents, especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes, and several lives were lost in the fires. The displacement of residents and the loss of homes and businesses had lasting economic and psychological impacts on the affected communities.
Who is Responsible for the Oregon Wildfire?
Over 70% of wildfires in Oregon are caused by humans, and the wind and dry weather contribute to the quick spread of these fires.
Among the 70%, many wildfires have been linked to the negligence of utility companies. PacifiCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power, was found responsible for causing the 2020 Labor Day wildfires in Oregon.
PacifiCorp, a utility under Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway based in Omaha, Nebraska, faced allegations in a lawsuit due to their decision to keep power lines energized during a period of major windstorm and extremely dry conditions.
Despite warnings from the chief-of-staff of Governor Kate Brown and senior fire officials, the company did not cut power to its 600,000 customers during the 2020 Labor Day weekend windstorm.
The plaintiffs claimed that PacifiCorp’s power lines were involved in several fires. One notable fire began in the utility’s service area in California and spread into Oregon. Furthermore, PacifiCorp should have been aware of the major windstorm and extremely dry conditions, which had the potential to start uncontrollable wildfires.
PacifiCorp Wildfire Lawsuit Verdict
PacifiCorp was sued by 17 named plaintiffs who are residents of Western Oregon, claiming that the corporation was involved in the 2020 Labor Day fires. Their case relied on PacifiCorp’s internal documents and testimonies from wildfire experts and victims, showing that the utility’s decision to keep power lines energized directly led to the fires.
They claimed that the company did nothing despite knowing its equipment was damaged and forecasting severe winds. Witnesses reported seeing power lines starting fires or emitting sparks.
On June 12, 2023, a Portland jury rendered a historic verdict, finding PacifiCorp liable for the catastrophic fires that ravaged Oregon on Labor Day 2020.
The jury’s decision was based on allegations that PacifiCorp’s negligence in power line maintenance and management significantly contributed to the ignition and spread of the fires. Particularly striking was the accusation that, despite warnings from high-level officials, PacifiCorp did not cut power during the critical windstorm period.
The jury determined that the utility was responsible for a significant portion of the damage resulting from fires in the Santiam Canyon, the South Obenchain, 242 fires in Southern Oregon, and the Oregon Coast’s Echo Mountain Complex Fire. These wildfires in 2020 burned approximately 1,900 square miles (1.22 million acres), destroyed over 5,000 structures, and resulted in at least nine deaths.
The jury sided with the plaintiffs on nearly all of their legal claims, finding PacifiCorp to have engaged in reckless and negligent behavior. PacifiCorp defended its actions, attributing the fires to climate change and a hard-to-predict weather event, and plans to appeal the ruling.
In the PacifiCorp wildfire lawsuit, the jury awarded $90 million to 17 plaintiffs, including their pain and suffering in addition to the value of lost property. PacifiCorp had been ordered to pay $18 million in punitive damages in addition to $72 million in compensatory damages.
This decision gives hope to thousands of affected individuals to file PacifiCorp wildfire lawsuits.
Settlement in the Southern Oregon Wildfire Lawsuit
A PacifiCorp wildfire lawsuit was filed by 463 individuals affected by the Archie Creek Fire in Southern Oregon. Following PacifiCorp’s defeat in a similar case in June concerning wildfires in different parts of the state, the company chose to settle. Due to the potentially higher costs of litigation, PacifiCorp agreed to a settlement.
The Archie Creek Fire, which occurred in 2020, destroyed approximately 170 homes and scorched over 130,000 acres near Glide, Oregon. In December 2023, PacifiCorp consented to pay $299 million to settle the lawsuits related to this fire. The $299 million settlement leads to an average of almost $1.35 million for each family participating in the litigation, although individual claims vary greatly.
It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the settlement will be allocated to cover the legal expenses of the victims. By agreeing to this settlement, PacifiCorp is shielded from potentially larger jury awards, which might have included punitive damages. The settlement also prevents a consolidated trial that was scheduled for January 30.
PacifiCorp’s Settlement with Timber Companies
The $299 million settlement does not include claims from the insurance company and many timber companies. An attorney highlighted the significance of Oregon for the U.S. timber industry, which has been severely affected by destructive wildfires, leading to massive economic losses.
Ten timber firms filed a lawsuit against PacifiCorp over the Archie Creek Complex Fire in Southern Oregon. This lawsuit targeted the Oregon utility Pacific Power, alleging negligence during the Labor Day weekend of 2020.
According to the PacifiCorp wildfire lawsuit, PacifiCorp employees ignored weather service warnings and continued operating the company’s electrical equipment rather than shutting it down. The lawsuit also claimed that the company failed to trim hazardous trees that could fall onto power lines during the strong winds that weekend.
On December 15, 2023, PacifiCorp agreed to pay an additional $250 million to some of the state’s largest timber companies as compensation for the damage caused three years earlier.
PacifiCorp disclosed the settlement with the timber companies in a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The $250 million settlement with the timber companies resolved years of legal disputes over the Archie Creek Fire, which burned more than 130,000 acres along the North Umpqua River near Glide, Oregon.
Trial for Oregon Wildfire Victims 2024
A trial began on January 9, 2024, focusing on the economic and non-economic damages suffered by nine individuals affected by the Oregon wildfires over Labor Day in 2020. This trial was held in Multnomah County Court and lasted one and a half weeks.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Nicholas Rosinia, requested at least $45 million in non-economic damages for these nine survivors.
On January 23, 2024, an Oregon jury awarded $62.3 million to victims of the 2020 wildfires in the state.
Last year, a different jury found PacifiCorp liable for the wildfires and set a punitive damages multiplier of 0.25 for a class of approximately 5,000 people. The recent award includes nearly $6.3 million in economic damages and $56 million in non-economic damages for the nine wildfire survivors. This total could increase to about $85 million based on the previous jury’s findings.
Additional trials related to this class action are scheduled to begin on February 26 and April 22, 2024. Pacific Power still has pending lawsuits. Due to PacifiCorp’s possible involvement in the 2020 Slater Fire at the Oregon-California border, the company is being sued for damages.
To wrap up,
Wildfires pose a significant threat globally. It’s crucial for each one of us to be well-informed and prepared on how to stay safe during a hard time. The harsh reality is that, due to the negligence of some companies, innocent people often suffer the consequences. It’s our responsibility to hold these entities accountable for their actions.
Safety should always be the top priority. Let’s stay vigilant and keep ourselves updated with the latest safety information. Remember, being informed means being prepared. Stay safe!