Berkshire’s PacifiCorp ordered to pay at least $29 million to Oregon wildfire victims

By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) -An Oregon state jury on Tuesday ordered Berkshire Hathaway’s PacifiCorp to pay at least $29.2 million to nine homeowners and a summer camp whose properties were damaged by 2020 wildfires they claim were sparked when the Oregon utility failed to shut off its power lines during high winds.

The verdict came in a trial that kicked off on Feb. 27 in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, where PacifiCorp is based.

The trial, which Reuters viewed via the Courtroom View Network, was the second of at least three scheduled this year to serve as test cases to determine how much PacifiCorp owes Oregon residents and business owners, whose homes and properties 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 of dollars in liability to compensate homeowners and business owners who claim the fires damaged approximately 2,400 properties across the state. The victims claimed in their 2020 class action that PacifiCorp had a duty to safely operate its electrical equipment, but negligently failed to shut it off.

The company has said it is appealing previous verdicts against it. It said in a statement on Tuesday that it has settled separate claims related to the fires, and will continue to settle other “reasonable” claims as well.

“Wildfires pose a catastrophic threat to communities, and require holistic solutions involving businesses, governments and other key stakeholders working together to design and implement enduring solutions for all Oregonians,” the company said.

A separate jury last year 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, but the liability findings apply to all the plaintiffs in the class action.

The jury also set punitive damages, which are damages reserved for defendants whose behavior is deemed particularly egregious, at 25% of compensatory damages. That finding also applies to all of the plaintiffs, which should boost their overall recovery.

The award from Tuesday’s verdict will exceed $42 million once punitive damages and other post-trial additions are made, attorneys who represented the plaintiffs said in a statement.

In January, another jury ordered PacifiCorp to pay at least $62 million to nine homeowners whose properties were damaged by the wildfires.

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.

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.

The U.S. government has also threatened to sue the company over natural resources damages and fire suppression costs associated with the 2020 Slater wildfire in southern Oregon and northern California.

(Reporting by Clark Mindock in New YorkEditing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Matthew Lewis)