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Another Electrical Utility Settles Wildfire Litigation

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As widely reported, including in previous issues of the Environmental Law Monitor, the environmental and financial impacts of wildfires in recent years have been significant. In the aftermath of these events, an ever-increasing number of lawsuits have been filed seeking compensation from entities deemed responsible for the disasters. A common target has been electrical utilities.

In Oregon, where it has been alleged that power lines caused multiple fires during a Labor Day weekend 2020 windstorm, electrical utility PacifiCorp has been the target of multiple lawsuits. Similar to litigation filed against utilities in other jurisdictions, property owners and residents claim that PacifiCorp was negligent in multiple ways such as in failing to shut off power in a timely manner.

The Labor Day weekend 2020 windstorm fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history. They killed nine people, burned more than 1,875 square miles, and destroyed over 5,000 homes and other structures.

In June 2023, a 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 came on top of an earlier verdict expected to amount to billions of dollars. PacifiCorp has planned to the June 2023 verdict, and more trials are set for next year to determine damages for additional plaintiffs in the case.

On December 5, 2023, PacifiCorp announced it will pay $299 million to settle another lawsuit brought by about 220 customers who were harmed by devastating wildfires in southern Oregon in 2020. 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.

In a recent regulatory filing, PacifiCorp report that:

“PacifiCorp has settled and is committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages as provided under 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 settled where homeowners and businesses have received insurance payments for their real and personal property damages and alternative living expenses.”

It is anticipated that more lawsuits could be coming against PacifiCorp. Total damages sought in the lawsuits filed so far is about $8 billion, the company said, excluding any doubling or tripling of damages, which could occur if jurors decide the utility’s conduct was bad enough to merit punitive damages.

PacifiCorp has asked Oregon regulators to limit its liabilities to only the actual damages, which are determined by attempts to total up the amount of lost property or other costs suffered by victims because of the wildfires. State regulators have not yet made a decision.

Observers of the Oregon wildfire litigation are keenly aware of its impact on wildfire litigation elsewhere with PacifiCorp’s recent settlement and jury verdict results providing important data concerning the value of these cases.