A Berkshire Hathaway Inc. unit is liable for destruction caused by the 2020 Labor Day Fires in Oregon, a jury concluded, exposing energy company PacifiCorp to potentially more than $1.5 billion in damages.
Following a seven-week trial, a state court jury in Portland on Monday found PacifiCorp responsible for four wildfires that intensified under hot, dry winds, consuming homes, businesses, schools, and scorching more than a million acres in southern, central and coastal Oregon.
PacifiCorp touts itself as the largest grid operator in the western US, serving 2 million customers in six states. Beyond the Portland case, the company faces another trial over a 2020 fire in a different location in Oregon, as well as litigation over a 2022 blaze near the California border that killed four people.
Berkshire Hathaway’s Class B shares fell as much as 0.9% on Monday.
After less than two days of deliberations, the jury awarded tens of millions in dollars in damages for 17 class members, finding that the the company’s conduct was negligent and reckless and created a public nuisance. The jury will hear more evidence later Monday to decide whether to impose punitive damages.
Jurors also found PacifiCorp liable for a class of people who own more than 2,500 burned properties – and those damages will be determined in a future proceeding. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have estimated total damages could exceed $1.6 billion.
Lawyers for the company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. An attorney for the plaintiffs had no immediate comment.
The plaintiffs had argued that PacifiCorp was aware of the risk of fire based on historically dry conditions, and National Weather Service warnings on Sept. 5, 2020, of winds possibly exceeding 75 mph (120 kph).
Despite the warnings, and its equipment being the source of other recent fires, PacifiCorp left its power lines energized, lawyers for the victims argued. As predicted, the winds came in full force on Labor Day, causing “power lines to topple and ignite fires,” along with “devastation and destruction on a massive scale,” according to the lawsuit.
PacifiCorp had argued that victims’ attorneys didn’t present sufficient evidence to find it liable. Douglas J. Dixon, a lawyer for the company, told jurors at the outset of trial that the suit was brought with the benefit of hindsight and that it’s “not nearly so simple” to blame the utility amid the complexities of climate change.
PacifiCorp didn’t have a “crystal ball,” he said, and “you can’t sue climate change.” Pacific Power, he argued, has been a pioneer in developing plans to mitigate fire risks, and no one can precisely predict when a fire is going to start.
Read More: Berkshire Unit Sued Over California’s Largest Fire of Season
Proactively shutting off power for swaths of Oregon was rare, novel and controversial — especially at the time, Dixon said. Before Labor Day in 2020 it had never happened in Oregon, he added. “It is truly a measure of last resort,” due to the dangers of blanketing communities in darkness just when they need light and energy most, he said.
The case is James v. PacifiCorp, 20CV33885, Oregon Circuit Court, County of Multnomah (Portland).
–With assistance from Matt Turner.
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