Jury finds Berkshire’s PacifiCorp unit liable in 2020 Oregon wildfires

Source: By Jonathan Stempel, Reuters • Posted: Monday, June 12, 2023

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett plays bridge during the Berkshire annual meeting weekend in Omaha, Nebraska
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett plays bridge during the Berkshire annual meeting weekend in Omaha, Nebraska May 3, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

June 12 (Reuters) – An Oregon jury on Monday found the utility PacifiCorp, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N), liable in a $1.6 billion class action lawsuit over four of the wildfires that devastated the state in 2020.

Jurors in Portland, where PacifiCorp is based, awarded more than $73 million of compensatory damages to 17 plaintiffs, following a seven-week trial in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.

The jurors also applied their liability finding to thousands of other plaintiffs who said the fires damaged approximately 2,400 properties.

Damages for those claimants will be determined in later court proceedings. Punitive damages for all plaintiffs have yet to be determined.

PacifiCorp said it “plans to pursue appeals, and we are confident we will prevail,” adding that “regardless of the outcome, a trial will never fully restore what was lost.”

Fire victims accused PacifiCorp of gross negligence and creating a nuisance for failing to shut down power lines during a Labor Day windstorm.

Victims said PacifiCorp did nothing despite knowing its equipment was damaged, and despite forecasts for severe wind with gusts that could reach hurricane strength. Witnesses reported seeing power lines start fires or send off sparks.

The case was brought by survivors of the Santiam Canyon fire, formed from the merger of multiple fires, east of Oregon’s capital of Salem; the Echo Mountain fire in Lincoln County; the South Obenchain fire in Jackson County, and the 242 fire in Klamath County.

PacifiCorp had defended its fire prevention efforts, saying power shutoffs would have been a last resort and were not necessary based on what it knew. It also said the plaintiffs did not establish that its equipment was to blame.

Wildfires throughout Oregon in 2020 burned approximately 1,900 square miles (1.22 million acres), destroying an estimated 5,000 or more structures and killing at least nine people.

The trial began on April 25.

PacifiCorp is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which is 92% owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio

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