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Berkshire's PacifiCorp ordered to pay at least $62 million to homeowners for 2020 Oregon wildfire damage

Published 01/23/2024, 05:12 PM
Updated 01/23/2024, 06:50 PM
© Reuters. A burned tuck sits in front of burned homes in a mobile home park that was destroyed by wildfire in Phoenix, Oregon, U.S. September 20, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo
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By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) -An Oregon state jury on Tuesday ordered PacifiCorp, an Oregon electric utility owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa), to pay at least $62 million to nine homeowners whose properties were damaged by wildfires that devastated the state in 2020.

Jurors in Portland, where PacifiCorp is based, awarded the homeowners nearly $6.3 million in total to compensate them for the property damage and other economic losses and $56 million for things like emotional distress, pain and suffering following a trial that started Jan. 9 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, which Reuters viewed via the Courtroom View Network.

The trial was the first of at least two scheduled this year to serve as test cases to determine how much PacifiCorp owes Oregon residents whose homes were ravaged by a series of fires that torched parts of the state over Labor Day weekend in 2020, causing nearly $1.9 billion in property damage and other harms, according to a state estimate.

The company could face billions in liability to compensate approximately 5,000 homeowners and business owners who filed a class action against the company in 2020, claiming that the fires damaged approximately 2,400 properties.

A PacifiCorp spokesperson said in a statement that the company intends to appeal the verdict, but that the company has settled separate claims related to the fires and will continue to settle other "reasonable" claims as well.

Matthew Preusch, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, called the verdict an "important step" toward recouping as much compensation as possible for fire victims.

A separate jury in June had already determined PacifiCorp was liable for the fires, finding the company was grossly negligent when it failed to shut down power lines that sparked during high winds and set off fires across the state. That trial involved 17 people whose homes or properties were damaged by the fires, but the liability findings apply to all the plaintiffs in the class action.

It also set punitive damages, which are damages reserved for defendants whose behavior is deemed to be particularly egregious, at 25% of compensatory damages. That finding also applies to all of the plaintiffs, which should boost the overall recovery for the plaintiffs in Tuesday's case.

The company is appealing the earlier verdicts.

The company has defended its fire prevention efforts, saying power shutoffs were not necessary based on what it knew. It has also said the plaintiffs did not establish that its equipment was to blame for the wildfires.

During the trial this month, a 12-person jury heard from several victims whose homes were destroyed.

One victim in his late 60s said he and his wife were forced to jump from a 30-foot cliff into a river below, cat in hand, to escape the flames from the Santiam Canyon fire, which formed from the merger of multiple fires east of Oregon's capital Salem.

Other victims described walls of flames dozens of feet high from that fire and others including the Echo Mountain fire in Lincoln County and the South Obenchain fire in Jackson County.

© Reuters. A burned tuck sits in front of burned homes in a mobile home park that was destroyed by wildfire in Phoenix, Oregon, U.S. September 20, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder/File Photo

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked the jury for at least $5 million in damages for pain and suffering and other non-economic harms for each plaintiff, in addition to the costs associated with damaged property. A lawyer for PacifiCorp had said the company supported fully paying victims for damaged property, but suggested that awards of $2 million or less per plaintiff would be enough to compensate them for non-economic harms.

Wildfires throughout Oregon in 2020 burned approximately 1,900 square miles (1.22 million acres), destroying an estimated 5,000 or more structures and killing at least nine people.

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