Five days after the disaster in March 2014, a firefighter searches rubble at the Oso mudslide. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

Five days after the disaster in March 2014, a firefighter searches rubble at the Oso mudslide. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)

Some claims against county in mudslide lawsuit dismissed

OSO — Dozens of people who lost family and homes to the Oso mudslide are now legally blocked from arguing that their personal tragedies were the result of alleged negligence by Snohomish County government officials.

A King County Superior Court judge on Aug. 11 dismissed multiple claims against the county brought by people pursuing lawsuits on behalf of themselves or the estates of those who died in the slide. The dismissal ruling affects about a dozen slide survivors as well as legal claims linked to 28 people who lost their lives in the 2014 disaster.

The action comes after attorneys for Snohomish County prevailed in a series of pre-trial skirmishes that focused on the county’s potential legal culpability.

The county, the state and the Grandy Lake Forest Associates timber company all are named as defendants in the case, which is believed to be the largest wrongful death action brought in Washington’s history. The Aug. 11 dismissal order doesn’t address claims brought against the state or timber company, nor does it apply to all plaintiffs who are suing the county.

A civil trial to decide whether anyone should be held responsible for the slide is scheduled to get underway before Judge Roger Rogoff this fall.

Rogoff earlier ruled that state law was clear: the county could not be sued for actions it took over the years to combat flooding near the hill that fell, nor for related decisions that tackled flood control and fisheries enhancement projects along the North Fork Stillaguamish River.

A key ruling came June 27 when the judge set limits on who would be able to claim county officials failed to adequately warn of the risks connected to the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. That’s where most, but not all, of the 43 people who died in the slide made their homes.

Rogoff held that the law required him to limit claims about the adequacy of the county’s warnings only to people who attended or “who relied on the substance” of information shared by government officials in a March 2006 meeting after an earlier slide blocked the river.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs alleged there were misleading warnings about landslide risks. The county countered that people at the meeting were told the government no longer would provide them with protection from likely future flooding, and that landslide activity was unpredictable.

There was talk at the meeting about whether the neighborhood should become a candidate for a federal buyout, records show. The parties disagree on exactly what was said and how that idea was received by neighbors.

In signing the Aug. 11 judgment and dismissal orders, the judge agreed with county attorneys that no evidence had been presented to show those affected by the ruling had attended the 2006 meeting or had relied on what was said about risks.

The judge also signed a separate order denying a request from the county, state and the timber company to split the upcoming trial into two phases, with one phase focused solely on questions of science and potential responsibility for the slide and the other on potential damages to victims.

The judge said his study of related cases shows that bifurcation of a civil case often was prompted by the complexity of the issues jurors would consider.

“Here, while the science in the case is complex, the legal theories are not,” Rogoff wrote. “Plaintiffs argue the county affirmatively warned certain plaintiffs of danger, but did it badly. Plaintiffs argue the State allowed a cribwall and sediment ponds to be built on its land which increased the danger to its cross-river neighborhood. Plaintiffs argue that Grandy Lake harvested timber on its own land, and that harvest made the landslide more dangerous.”

The judge wrote that he believes a jury can follow instructions not to allow its verdict to be colored by sympathy or prejudice.

Based on pleadings filed earlier, the ruling means people who lost loved ones in the slide likely will need to testify less than if the court had decided to break the case into two phases.

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

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