By Claire Rush and Gene Johnson
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 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.
PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said it would appeal the liability verdict and damages.
This photo provided by the Office of Governor Kate Brown shows Oregon Governor Kate Brown during a visit to the frontline of the Beachie Creek Fire, in Beach Creek, Ore. on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Nikki Fisher/Office of Governor Kate Brown via AP)
The Multnomah County Circuit Court jury in Portland found Wednesday that PacifiCorp’s negligence warranted additional damages 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 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.
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.
This photo taken by Talent, Ore., resident Kevin Jantzer shows the destruction of his hometown as wildfires ravaged the central Oregon town near Medford on Sept. 8, 2020. (Kevin Jantzer via AP, File)