Jury awards punitive damages in PacifiCorp trial

A jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Oregon decided yesterday that the state’s second-largest electric utility PacifiCorp — which owns Pacific Power — must pay punitive damages for causing the horrific Labor Day wildfires in 2020 — in addition to the earlier verdict in a class-action suit for negligence. It’s expected to amount to billions of dollars. The jury on Monday awarded $73 million to 17 homeowners named as plaintiffs in the case, with damages for a broader class involving the owners of nearly 2,500 properties burned in the fires.

Beachie Creek Fire Sept. 2 2020 -- Inciweb photo
Beachie Creek Fire Sept. 2 2020 — Inciweb photo

PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said it would appeal, according to a report published by KEZI-TV News.

The jury determined yesterday that punitive damages were warranted because of the utility’s indifference to the safety of others — and to deter such conduct in the future. The 2020 fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history, and burned more acres than had been burned in the previous 36 years combined.

September 9 update from Brian Gales' NWIMT13 after the Beachie Creek ICP was overrun by fire.
September 9 update from Brian Gales’ NWIMT13 after the Beachie Creek ICP was overrun by fire. Originally listed at 469 acres, the fire grew overnight to 131,000 acres.
Beachie Creek Fire
Beachie Creek Fire

The fires roared down canyons in western Oregon, blown by east winds, hot temperatures, and other conditions perfect for autumn firestorms, killing nine people and burning more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers), destroying upwards of 5,000 homes and other structures.

Plaintiffs alleged that PacifiCorp negligently failed to shut off power to its 600,000 customers during a severe windstorm, despite numerous warnings from top fire officials, which had prompted other utilities in the state to temporarily shut down power to prevent powerline-caused fires.

Utility crews in October 2020 -- Inciweb photo
Utility crews in October 2020 — Inciweb photo

Doug Dixon, an attorney for the power company, told the jury that punitive damages were unwarranted. He claimed PacifiCorp was not indifferent to the threat of wildfire risk — despite testimony indicating otherwise during the trial. The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars since the fires to upgrade equipment and expand weather stations and weather modeling. Dixon said the utility could face bankruptcy if punitive damages exceed its net worth of $10.7 billion.

The final verdict is posted on our DOCUMENTS page.

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