Electric company PacifiCorp has entered a confidential settlement with two families who were victims of Oregon’s catastrophic 2020 Labor Day fires along the North Umpqua River, according to attorneys representing the families, who say they will now go into mediation to potentially settle the claims of about 200 additional families who were victims of those fires.
According to filings in a lawsuit originally brought in October 2020, plaintiffs Kathy Kreiter and Tim Goforth lost their home and Goforth was blinded in one eye permanently by an injury sustained in the fire. Phillip and Cassie Strader lost 750 acres of timber in the fire, which constituted their retirement fund, the filings said.
Together, they were seeking $69 million in damages, and the judge had agreed to let the jury consider punitive damages beyond that amount due to PacifiCorp’s alleged reckless indifference to the risk of harm to the plaintiffs and citizens of Douglas County.
Their attorneys, led by San Francisco-based Baker & Hostetler LLP, filed three additional lawsuits Nov. 1 on behalf of a handful of the 200 families they represent. Those three lawsuits alone seek more than $100 million in damages. They could go to trial if the parties can’t come to terms in mediation, or PacifiCorp could consider a global settlement before another case goes to trial.
“We went right up to trial and there was a settlement,” said Robert Julian, a lawyer at the firm. “We’ll try to resolve them all with a retired judge. We’ll give it two or three or four months, hold off filing (more cases) for a while. If they don’t settle progressively, we’ll go to trial.”
A spokesperson for PacifiCorp said the company doesn’t comment on legal matters.
The settlement may be the tip of a financial iceberg for the utility. It provides electrical service in many of the rural communities ravaged by the 2020 fires, and faces a raft of litigation stemming from them.
One of the largest is a class action case filed on behalf of owners of properties burned in the Santiam, 242 and South Obenchain fires. That trial is scheduled for April 24 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, and a website has been established where interested parties can get information on the litigation and potentially opt out.
PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, is also being sued by various insurers and faces a $350 million suit from timberland owners in Douglas County.
While the specific claims in the lawsuits vary, they generally allege that the utility was negligent in managing its transmission and distribution rights of way, failed to perform adequate tree trimming and didn’t deenergize its electrical lines in advance of a historic windstorm that was forecast days in advance. In the case of Archie Creek, plaintiffs allege PacifiCorp reenergized a line downed in the storm that ultimately caused one of the two fires that merged into the larger conflagration.
Investigations by the U.S Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management determined that power lines operated by PacifiCorp’s Oregon subsidiary, Pacific Power, were the probable cause of two fires that merged into the Archie Creek fire. It burned almost 132,000 acres and destroyed 109 homes.
State and federal authorities have not released the results of their investigations into the other Labor Day fires.
– Ted Sickinger; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger