Jury: PacifiCorp Must Pay Punitive Damages For Wildfires, Plus Award That Could Reach Billions

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A jury in Oregon says the electric utility PacifiCorp must pay punitive damages for causing devastating wildfires in 2020 — on top of an earlier verdict already expected to amount to billions of dollars.

The decision Wednesday came two days after the jurors found PacifiCorp liable for the fires and said it must pay for damage to property as well as emotional distress. 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 other properties to be determined later.

The property owners alleged that PacifiCorp negligently failed to shut off power to its 600,000 customers during a windstorm, despite warnings from then-Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff and top fire officials, and that its power lines were responsible for multiple blazes.

The fires over Labor Day weekend in 2020 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.

PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said it plans to appeal.

The Multnomah County Circuit Court jury in Portland found Wednesday that the additional damages were warranted to punish the utility’s alleged indifference to the safety of others and to deter such conduct in the future.

The jury determined the amount should be one-quarter of whatever is eventually awarded for property damage and emotional distress — meaning the punitive damages could reach hundreds of millions of dollars or more.

“The jury’s verdict is extremely gratifying after PacifiCorp refused to accept responsibility for any of the damages caused by its incompetence and utter disregard for people and property on Labor Day 2020,” Cody Berne, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a news release Wednesday.

Doug Dixon, an attorney for the power company, told the jury Tuesday that punitive damages were unwarranted, saying that PacifiCorp “was not indifferent to the threat of wildfire risk, let alone outrageously or consciously so.”

The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars since the fires to upgrade equipment and expand its weather stations and weather modeling, he said.

Further, Dixon said, the utility could face bankruptcy if punitive damages exceed its net worth of $10.7 billion.

The plaintiffs’ attorney told the jury such damages would be the only way to hold the company accountable.

“This should’ve never happened,” Berne said. “The way to make sure it never happens again is to speak to them in the language that they know. And it’s the language of money.”

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