Oregon jury: PacifiCorp must pay punitive damages for fires, plus award that could reach billions
June 15, 2023 By Claire Rush And Gene Johnson, The Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A jury on Wednesday ordered the electric utility PacifiCorp to pay punitive damages for causing devastating wildfires in Oregon in 2020 — on top of an earlier verdict already expected to amount to billions of dollars.
The decision came two days after the jurors found PacifiCorp liable for the fires and said it must pay for damage to property as well as emotional distress. The jury on Monday awarded more than $70 million to 17 homeowners named as plaintiffs in the case, with damages to be determined later for a broader class that could include the owners of about 2,500 properties, as estimated by plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The property owners alleged that PacifiCorp negligently failed to shut off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm over Labor Day weekend, despite warnings from then-Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff and top fire officials, and that its power lines were responsible for multiple blazes.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that after the fires, PacifiCorp started an internal investigation — without communicating that to workers in the field. As a result, the workers repaired or replaced some damaged equipment without documenting or preserving evidence of how broken poles or power lines contributed to the fires.
The fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history. They killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometres) and destroyed upward of 5,000 homes and other structures.
PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said it plans to appeal.
“We are disappointed in and disagree with the jury’s decision in this case,” PacifiCorp said in an emailed statement.
The Multnomah County Circuit Court jury in Portland found Wednesday that the additional damages were warranted to punish the utility’s alleged indifference to the safety of others and to deter such conduct in the future.
The jury determined the amount should be one-quarter of whatever is eventually awarded for property damage and emotional distress — meaning the punitive damages could reach hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
One of the plaintiffs, Rachelle McMaster, said she was overwhelmed by feelings of happiness and relief when she heard Wednesday’s verdict. McMaster, 45, lost her home in the central coast community of Otis to the Echo Mountain Complex Fire.
“I got so emotional knowing that we won everything,” McMaster said. “We did it. We convinced the jury that we deserved to be compensated for everything that we lost.”
Cody Berne, an attorney for the plaintiffs, also welcomed the verdict.
“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,” Berne said in a news release Wednesday.
Doug Dixon, an attorney for the power company, told the jury Tuesday that punitive damages were unwarranted, saying that PacifiCorp “was not indifferent to the threat of wildfire risk, let alone outrageously or consciously so.”
The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars since the fires to upgrade equipment and expand its weather stations and weather modelling, he said.
Further, Dixon said, the utility could face bankruptcy if punitive damages exceed its net worth of $10.7 billion.
The plaintiffs’ attorney told the jury such damages would be the only way to hold the company accountable.
“This should’ve never happened,” Berne said. “The way to make sure it never happens again is to speak to them in the language that they know. And it’s the language of money.”