PORTLAND, Ore. (News21USA) — Electric company PacifiCorp will pay $299 million to settle a lawsuit brought by about 220 customers who were harmed by the devastating wildfires in southern Oregon in 2020.
The settlement announced Tuesday comes after the utility lost a similar lawsuit in June over wildfires in other parts of the state, The Oregonian reported.
The utility has faced several lawsuits from homeowners and residents who claim 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 fires.
The fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon history. They killed nine people, burned more than 4,856 square kilometers (1,875 square miles), and destroyed more than 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’s 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 across 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 comes on top of an earlier verdict that was expected to run into the billions of dollars.
PacifiCorp has vowed to appeal the June verdict, and more trials will be scheduled for next year to determine damages for additional plaintiffs in the case.
The settlement announced Tuesday means the utility will avoid the risk of being sued and 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 wildfire accounting reserves.
“PacifiCorp has settled and is committed to resolving all reasonable claims for actual damages as provided by 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 has settled where homeowners and businesses have received insurance payments for their real and personal property damages and alternative living expenses.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment on specific details but gave unusual praise to the company for reaching a settlement.
“I want to congratulate PacifiCorp’s new CEO and general counsel for stepping up and doing right by its taxpayers who lost their homes during the 2020 Labor Day fires,” said Mikal Watts, the co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement. “Today’s agreement is the result of one thing: good lawyers and good corporate leadership.”
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More lawsuits could come. 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 legal action. The total damages sought in lawsuits filed so far amount to about $8 billion, the company said, excluding any doubling or tripling of damages, which could occur if jurors decide the utility’s conduct was sufficiently bad enough to merit punitive damages.
PacifiCorp has asked state regulators to limit its liability only to actual damages, which are determined by attempts to add up the amount of property lost or other costs suffered by victims due to the wildfires. State regulators have not yet made a decision.