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Warren Buffett’s western utility facing untold billions in wildfire damages after the latest bombshell jury verdict came down



A jury in Oregon has ordered PacifiCorp to pay more than $42 million to 10 victims of devastating wildfires on Labor Day 2020 — the latest verdict in litigation that is expected to see the electric utility on the hook for billions in damages.

Last June, a jury found PacifiCorp liable for negligently failing to cut power to its 600,000 customers despite warnings from top fire officials. The jury determined it acted negligently and willfully and should have to pay punitive and other damages — a decision that applied to a class including the owners of up to 2,500 properties.

Tuesday’s decision was the third verdict applying last year’s ruling to a specific set of plaintiffs. Last month, a jury awarded $85 million to a different set of nine plaintiffs, and the jury that initially found PacifiCorp liable awarded about $90 million to 17 homeowners named as plaintiffs in that case.

Thousands of other class members are still awaiting trials, though the sides are also expected to engage in mediation that could lead to a settlement.

PacifiCorp, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is appealing. The utility said in an email Tuesday it has settled hundreds of claims relating to the fires and “remains committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages under Oregon law.”

“For utilities, there is an ominous risk in making future investments in regions where they become the de facto insurers of last resort in a more frequent extreme weather environment,” the statement said.

The fires were among the worst natural disasters in Oregon’s history, killing nine people, burning more than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) and destroying upward of 5,000 homes and other structures.

Among those covered by Tuesday’s award is the Upward Bound Camp for Persons with Special Needs in Gates, Oregon, plaintiffs attorneys said in a news release Tuesday. The camp’s executive director testified that a fire began on its property after a power line fell. It destroyed the only indoor spaces that can accommodate campers, leaving the nonprofit organization unable to hold camps during the winter, spring and fall.

The U.S. government is also threatening to sue PacifiCorp to recover nearly $1 billion in costs related to the 2020 wildfires in southern Oregon and northern California, though the company is trying to negotiate a settlement.

Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway estimates that its utilities face at least $8 billion in claims across all the wildfire lawsuits already filed in Oregon and California, although the damages could be doubled or even tripled in some of those cases and some of the lawsuits don’t list a dollar amount.

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