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Oregon jury finds electric utility PacifiCorp liable in devastating wildfires

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Electric utility PacifiCorp could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. It's been found liable for its role in Oregon's most destructive wildfire season on record in 2020. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Ryan Haas reports.

RYAN HAAS, BYLINE: The jury awarded $90 million to 17 plaintiffs who lost homes and businesses in a series of fires that grew to an overwhelming scale Labor Day weekend 2020. Some of those fires, the jury ruled, were PacifiCorp's fault. The company could potentially owe billions to many more people who are part of a class-action lawsuit. The fires exploded in the midst of high winds and very dry conditions.

CODY BERNE: These were absolutely traumatic and catastrophic fires. They were preventable, and this never had to happen.

HAAS: Cody Berne was the lead trial attorney for the plaintiffs. He and a team of lawyers argued that PacifiCorp's power lines started many of the fires. They said at trial that even after PacifiCorp learned its lines were sparking, they refused to turn the power off. During the nearly two-month trial, PacifiCorp's lawyers said the company did everything in its power to mitigate wildfire risk, including trimming trees and tracking the weather. They also argued that turning off the power would have presented its own hazards - for example, for people with certain medical needs or those escaping the fires on roads with stoplights. PacifiCorp's lead attorney, Doug Dixon, said that climate change was the real culprit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DIXON: Plaintiffs want to ignore a changing world and blame it all on my client, Pacific Power. Why? Because they view Pacific Power as an easy - as a convenient target, and you can't sue climate change.

HAAS: PacifiCorp released a statement after the jury's decision saying that they plan to appeal. As the climate warms, the risks of major wildfires are growing, and PacifiCorp is not the only utility to face blame for their role in sparking them. California's Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after a flood of lawsuits related to deadly wildfires. And this month, an investigation found that the utility XL Energy helped start the destructive 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado. That company is also facing a lawsuit.

MICHAEL WARA: What the decision today and yesterday tells you is that the old way of doing business is not acceptable, given the changing risk and the expectations of the public.

HAAS: Michael Wara is director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. He says utilities need to do more to prevent wildfires. That will mean spending more on tree trimming and burying power lines and sometimes turning the power off.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Haas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE WHISPERING CAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Haas