PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Electricity utility PacifiCorp will pay $299 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 463 individual plaintiffs who were harmed by devastating wildfires in southern Oregon in 2020.
The utility has faced several lawsuits from property owners and residents who say PacifiCorp negligently failed to shut off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm over Labor Day weekend in 2020, despite warnings from state leaders and top fire officials, and that its power lines caused multiple blazes.
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 kilometers) and destroyed upward of 5,000 homes and other structures.
The settlement ends three years of legal wrangling with victims of the Archie Creek fire, which devastated communities along the North Umpqua River east of Roseburg. It is for a much smaller amount than the damages awarded by a jury in June to a different group of homeowners in connection with four other fires that broke out around the state.
In the June case, the jury ordered PacifiCorp to pay more than $70 million to 17 homeowners, with additional damages to be determined later for a broader group of victims that could include the owners of about 2,500 properties. That award came on top of an earlier verdict expected to amount to billions of dollars.
PacifiCorp vowed to appeal the June verdict, and more trials are set for next year to determine damages for additional plaintiffs in the case.
The settlement announced Tuesday means the utility will avoid the risk of trial and being ordered to pay additional damages, such as for emotional distress.
In a regulatory filing, PacifiCorp said the settlement amounts are consistent with amounts previously estimated and established in accounting reserves for the wildfires.
“PacifiCorp has settled and is committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages as provided under Oregon law,” the company said in a statement. “These settlements are in addition to settlements with other individuals and businesses, and hundreds of insurance claims PacifiCorp settled where homeowners and businesses have received insurance payments for their real and personal property damages and alternative living expenses.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers declined to comment on specifics but heaped uncharacteristic praise on the company for settling.
“I want to congratulate the new CEO and the General Counsel of PacifiCorp for stepping up and doing the right thing by their ratepayers who lost their homes during the Labor Day 2020 fires,” Mikal Watts, the plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel, said in a statement. “Today’s settlement is the result of one thing — good lawyers and good corporate leadership.”
More lawsuits could be coming. PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said in another recent financial filing that some government entities have informed the company that they are considering taking legal action. Total damages sought in the lawsuits filed so far is about $8 billion, the company said, excluding any doubling or tripling of damages, which could occur if jurors decide the utility’s conduct was bad enough to merit punitive damages.
PacifiCorp has asked state regulators to limit its liabilities to only the actual damages, which are determined by attempts to total up the amount of lost property or other costs suffered by victims because of the wildfires. State regulators have not yet made a decision.
This story has been updated to correct the number of individual plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to 463, not 220.
The Associated Press