Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co.’s PacifiCorp said it will pay $299 million to settle claims over wildfires that burned homes in southwest Oregon, averting another jury trial in litigation that has already exposed the utility to billions in damages.
The accord, disclosed Tuesday in a regulatory filing, will resolve claims by homeowners that the utility’s equipment was responsible for ignitions around Labor Day 2020 in Douglas County that burned more than 131,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 residences.
The settlement doesn’t address claims by insurers and by several timber companies over lost trees. A trial in that case is set for Jan. 30. Investigations by federal agencies concluded that power lines operated by a PacifiCorp unit probably caused the blazes, now known as the Archie Creek Fire.
The company saw spreads on its investment-grade bonds narrow Wednesday. The bonds were among the most heavily traded of the day, according to Trace. Its 5.5% notes due in 2054 tightened 28 basis points to 180 basis points more than Treasuries, according to Trace pricing data, as of 3 p.m. New York time. The bond is at its highest price since July.
PacifiCorp — which touts itself as the largest grid operator in the western US — has been battered by lawsuits claiming the company failed to heed hazardous weather warnings and shut off power in its service areas before toppled power lines ignited fires.
In a trial targeting PacifiCorp over a different group of fires in the state on the same 2020 weekend, a state-court jury in Portland in June awarded $90 million to a group of 17 property owners — and paved the way for thousands of other residents to potentially seek billions more damages in early 2024.
The seven-week trial marked the first class-action case against a major utility to go to a jury following a series of catastrophic fires on the US West Coast in recent years that were touched off by historic droughts and searing heat exacerbated by climate change.
PacifiCorp’s legal woes follow the bankruptcy of PG&E Corp., which agreed to settle victim claims over a series of California wildfires for $13.5 billion in 2020. More recently, fires that razed the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in August have left Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. facing liabilities of almost $5 billion if it’s found negligent.
Mikal Watts, a Puerto Rico-based lawyer who represents Oregon homeowners suing the utility over the Archie Creek Fire, praised PacifiCorp’s new chief executive officer for moving to resolve the claims prior to trial.
PacifiCorp said in a statement the accord covers 463 plaintiffs affected by the “undeniably tragic” 2020 fires and that the company is “committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages as provided under Oregon law.” The company said it has previously settled with other individuals and businesses and resolved hundreds of insurance claims.
The case is Ellis v. PacifiCorp, 22 CV 37304, Douglas County Circuit Court (Roseburg).
Top photo: In this aerial view from a drone, people walk through a mobile home park destroyed by fire on September 10, 2020 in Phoenix, Oregon. Hundreds of homes in the town have been lost due to wildfire. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
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