No amount of money can return lost loved ones or restore the homes and memories destroyed in a tragedy, but a significant legal settlement can serve as a stern warning to businesses and governments. The landslide attorneys at PCVA and the other firms involved delivered such a message to the State of Washington and the Grandy Lake Forest Associates timber company in October 2016 in wrongful death litigation in the wake of a deadly landslide.
On March 22, 2014, tragedy struck the Steelhead Haven community in Oso, Washington after weeks of rain rendered the clear-cut mountainside unstable. There was no warning for the residents, and they had nowhere to run as a 30- to 70-foot high wall of mud, trees, and debris slid down the mountain, burying entire families, a neighborhood, and a highway over one square mile of devastated ground. The Oso tragedy is the nation’s deadliest landslide to date.
Though the residents below weren’t warned, both the state and the logging company witnessed multiple warning signs of the impending danger. Despite this knowledge, no one did anything to warn the vulnerable population who lived below the denuded mountain. The state, aware of the long history of instability on the mountain, allowed logging and constructed a crib wall fence to stabilize the mountainside. Ultimately, that fence only allowed earth from earlier landslides to accumulate behind it, strengthening the eventual mudslide and causing it to engulf the neighborhood. A clear-cutting timber operation increased runoff on the mountain and made the land more susceptible to landslides. Further, the state withheld crucial information from residents, keeping them in the dark about these risks.
In October 2016, PCVA landslide attorneys Loren Cochran and Darrell Cochran were on the team of attorneys who negotiated a $60 million settlement with two defendants in the King County Superior Court. The state settled on the eve of trial for $50 million for its role in the tragedy. Grandy Lake Forest Associates, the timber company operating on the mountain, agreed to pay $10 million the following day, just before the start of opening statements. The settlement does not include additional penalties and costs against the state for its experts’ improper destruction of email evidence throughout the litigation.
PCVA represented three of the 27 plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Randi Lester, who filed a wrongful death claim on behalf of her 14-year-old son, Denver Harris, an avid hiker who was killed in his home; Mark Lambert, who suffered serious permanent injuries to his arm as well as catastrophic property damage; and Robin Youngblood, the first victim to be rescued from her engulfed home, who lost nearly everything she owned.
While the settlement does not make these or the other victims whole, it is already acting as an effective warning for localities and companies. Washington has imposed new logging rules for landslide-prone areas in the aftermath of the Oso landslide. A memorial will be established with part of the funds from the settlement to ensure that what happened in Oso never happens again.