Oregon’s second-largest electrical utility, PacifiCorp, played a significant role in the Labor Day wildfires that ravaged parts of the state in 2020, according to a Multnomah County jury.
Jurors returned a nearly unanimous verdict Monday that found the utility caused a substantial amount of damage related to fires in the Santiam Canyon, as well as the South Obenchain and 242 fires in Southern Oregon and the Echo Mountain Complex Fire on the Oregon Coast.
After less than two days of deliberations, jurors found the company owes more than $73 million in total to the 17 plaintiffs in the case for losses related to the fires and for emotional suffering. That amount could rise after jurors assess punitive damages in the case. The jury also found that a broader class of potentially thousands of people can bring claims against PacifiCorp for the fires in a future court proceeding.
Plaintiff Rachelle McMaster, who lost her home in Otis to the Echo Mountain Complex Fire, cried and hugged family members outside the courtroom after the jury decision was announced.
Fire victims frequently said throughout the proceedings that they wanted an outcome to the trial that helped them move past the trauma of 2020.
“While the Santiam Canyon will never be the same, I hope this verdict will help in the long term healing and recovery of what took many lifetimes to build,” said Sam Drevo, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Bill Edge, who lost his home to the Santiam Canyon fires, said he cried too as he learned of the verdict while at home in the manufactured home that now sits on his property.
“After three years, we have been constantly reliving the incident over and over through questioning, counseling, lawyers, insurance companies,” Edge said in a text message, “now we get to start our journey to recovery.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment immediately Monday.
Since late April, jurors have listened to a wide-ranging case from attorneys representing 17 plaintiffs whose properties burned in the four fires. Throughout their case, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said leaders at PacifiCorp, which is owned by the multinational holding company Berkshire Hathaway, should have known from weather reports and other warnings that a major windstorm and extremely dry conditions had the potential to start uncontrollable wildfires on Labor Day 2020. The plaintiffs’ case relied on 911 calls, PacifiCorp’s internal documents, wildfire experts and emotional testimony from the victims to show that the utility’s decision to leave power lines energized directly led to fires.
During their defense, PacifiCorp’s lawyers said the company had to balance the fire risk that weekend with the danger to customers of turning off the power in broad areas of the state. To convince the jurors that PacifiCorp made the right decision, the attorneys relied on expert testimony and company employees to make the case PacifiCorp is an Oregon leader in wildfire mitigation. In the case of the Santiam Canyon fires, the company also pointed to another nearby wildfire that had started weeks before Labor Day — the Beachie Creek Fire — as the primary cause of new fire starts that weekend.
Jurors in the case found PacifiCorp liable for damages in five of the six legal areas the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued, including gross negligence and recklessness.
Following the verdict, PacifiCorp issued a statement that reiterated much of its defense, saying that the 2020 fires were the result of climate change and a hard-to-predict weather event, not the company’s equipment.
“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 wrote. “These systemic issues affect all Oregonians and are larger than any single utility.”
The company said it plans to appeal Monday’s ruling. The court proceeding will now head to a second phase in which a jury will assess potential damages owed to potentially thousands of people who had property damaged by the four fires.
Ralph Bloemers, who works at the wildfire resilience nonprofit Green Oregon, was among the first to document power line ignitions in the Santiam Canyon after the 2020 wildfires started. In a statement, he said the trial “laid bare” that PacifiCorp had started fires and tried to obscure that by removing its damaged equipment.
“I was shocked by how little the company’s top people claimed to remember and by how much evidence they admitted destroying,” Bloemers said.
What effect Monday’s verdict will have on customers of PacifiCorp’s Oregon utility, Pacific Power, remains to be seen.
The Oregon Public Utility Commission, which oversees and approves rate increases in the state, said in some cases, utilities can request rate hikes beyond what has been approved so they can recover costs from “unexpected, extraordinary events.”
“We have no information about whether or when PacifiCorp may decide to file with the PUC to recover any costs associated with this litigation through customer rates,” agency spokesperson Kandi Young said in an email. “The PUC would scrutinize any such request in an open public process.”
Bob Jenks with the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, which represents the interests of ratepayers, said the utility could not reasonably pass on the costs from Monday’s verdict to its customers because the jury found the company was grossly negligent. He said it may be possible that customers will have to pay more in the future if PacifiCorp decides to spend more money on tree trimming and other wildfire mitigation efforts.
Still, he said, the verdict was a clear message.
“To me, this was a pretty harsh verdict against PacifiCorp,” Jenks said. “It’s clearly sending the message to companies that you can be held liable.”
The company’s legal troubles may not be over either. Others who said they have been damaged by fires PacifiCorp started have indicated a desire to sue, and Monday’s verdict may signal juries are willing to listen.
This is a developing story and may be updated.