PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon’s second-largest utility company is hoping to be shielded from liability in future lawsuits involving wildfires.
Pacific Power began seeking immunity after a jury found the service provider liable for starting some of the Oregon Labor Day fires that left hundreds of families without a home in 2020.
A jury ordered the company to pay $90 million to 17 victims of the 2020 wildfires. Pacific Power is appealing that ruling despite the fact that the same jury found the utility’s failure to shut off power during the windstorm led to downed power lines, sparking several fires.
The company also wants the state to protect it from most of the high-cost points of liability. One of those points includes punitive damages, claiming the request “strikes a reasonable balance between enabling actual damages when appropriate, and unreasonable treble damages.”
Fire Safe Communities Director Ralph Bloemers estimates the majority of the one million acres burned in 2020 came from Pacific Power-related fires, and the company is trying to sidestep its consequences.
“The purpose of a punitive damage is to make someone take something seriously that they’ve done really wrong, and hopefully make sure they never do it again,” Bloemers said.
Meanwhile, Pacific Power has requested for the Oregon Public Utilities Commission to only be held liable for actual damages, which were less than half of the $90 million awarded this summer.
“It is a very hard situation for people, and to say, ‘We’ll pay you, just the only the cost of rebuilding your house,’” Bloemers said. “That is not the impact on these communities from powerline ignited fires.”
The request would only apply to future fires, but some 2020 survivors feel disrespected. Rachelle McMaster, who lost her home in the Labor Day blaze, said she was surprised when she heard about the company’s request.
“I was shocked by it. I couldn’t believe that they would think that is OK,” she said, later adding that “there’s so many people that are not home yet, they’re still struggling trying to figure it out.”
McMaster’s home has since been rebuilt, but she said she is still haunted by the flames that burned down her previous home.
“We had a controlled burn the other day, and it set off my PTSD,” she said. “I actually had a hard time sleeping that night, because it just brought back everything from when we evacuated.”
KOIN 6 reached out to Pacific Power with specific questions. They rejected to answer and instead sent a statement that read, “We believe a reasonable limit on liability as allowed under Oregon law would be a net benefit to Oregon customers, as it would shield them from some of the costs associated with wildfire litigation.”
A spokesperson declined to answer whether that suggests the company plans to pass on liability costs to its ratepayers. But Bloemers explains that it ultimately works out that way.
“What they’re basically saying is, ‘Hey, you ratepayer, you customer, you have no other choice but to accept power from us. And you got to accept this one-sided contract that says if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not doing our job, we have very limited liability to you if we burn up your community,” he said.
Pacific Power claims this is standard practice in western states, but Bloemers questions whether it’s even legal for this filing to be accepted by the PUC.
“Some of their comparisons, I don’t even think it’s apples to oranges. I don’t even think it’s the same fruit,” he said.
PUC staff plans to tell the commission to not accept the request from Pacific Power, which will begin a months long investigation process to determine if the request is viable.