The site of the Oso mudslide, as it appeared in May 2014, two months after the event.

Another delay in the civil trial for the deadly Oso mudslide

OSO — A civil trial to explore whether anyone should be held responsible for the deadly Oso mudslide has again been delayed, this time so experts can adequately digest the results of drilling and other recent research aimed at finding hard evidence that may explain why the hill fell.

The trial originally was set for fall 2015, but was rescheduled for June to allow more time for the parties to prepare.

Now, there will be no mudslide trial before mid-to-late September.

King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff changed the schedule in a Feb. 18 ruling that came after lawyers for Snohomish County, the state of Washington, and a timber company all said more time is necessary.

The delay was opposed by lawyers representing the families of the 43 people who were killed and dozens of others who were injured in March 2014 when a wall of mud and trees raced across the Stillaguamish River valley.

“It cannot be underscored more deeply at this stage that Plaintiffs deserve their day in court,” the lawyers wrote. “The trauma of survivors and surviving family members endures while this case is prolonged and remains unresolved.”

Attorneys for the state and county asked for more time to consider the results of drilling that state experts conducted over the past year in an effort to better understand the geology of the hillside and how water moved through the ground.

The results still are being analyzed, but the work is raising questions about some widely held theories, including the suggestion that the primary reason the hill fell was because logging over the years sent more water percolating into the area that collapsed, according to court papers. Other independent scientific examinations of the slide paint a more complex picture, including signs that similar events repeatedly have occurred in that valley since Ice Age.

“The State’s drilling revealed important, previously unknown information, some of which still is being evaluated in laboratories across the West,” the county’s lawyers wrote. “Many of the geological, geotechnical, and hydrological experts have revised or are in the process of revising their opinions, including many of plaintiffs’ experts.”

Along with their pleadings, state attorneys filed a lengthy report that contains preliminary opinions from their experts, who note that studies of the hillside prior to the 2014 disaster largely were based on educated assumptions, not hard evidence.

“The analysis of what contributed to the Oso landslide, and just as importantly what factors did not contribute, is not surprisingly an incredibly complex analysis requiring a multidisciplinary team to fully evaluate the event,” wrote Rene Tomisser, senior counsel for the state attorney general’s office.

Judge Rogoff wrote that the schedule for bringing the case to trial always has been ambitious and the lawyers have been working hard.

“While this Court might quarrel with whether any litigation can provide ‘closure’ for folks who have tragically lost their families, their homes, and their bearings, the Court certainly understands Plaintiffs’ desire to have a trial that seeks to answer many of the questions they harbor as a result of this tragedy,” Rogoff wrote.

He said that delaying the trial is the correct decision now, but there will be no further continuances “absent the most extraordinary circumstances.”

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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