SEATTLE — What was supposed to be a months-long civil trial focused on the Oso mudslide ended Monday when the last remaining defendant settled with people who were harmed by the disaster.
The deal with Grandy Lake Forest Associates timber company, reportedly a $10 million settlement, was announced in a King County courtroom where jurors had gathered to begin hearing the case.
Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff thanked and dismissed the jurors.
Rogoff later announced about $1.2 million in sanctions and court costs against state attorneys over a secret plan which saw their scientific and engineering experts systematically destroy emails about their work. The problem came to light in August after the plaintiffs’ attorneys noticed something amiss during discovery.
On Sunday, attorneys announced a $50 million settlement with the state of Washington.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday said the disaster “represents one of the most tragic events in state history, and the sympathies of Washingtonians remain with those who lost so much.”
“Today’s settlement of the legal chapter of this tragedy represents a fair resolution for all parties,” he added.
Despite the settlements in the last two days, the case is not over. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are appealing Rogoff’s rulings that led to Snohomish County being dismissed from the litigation last month.
Gerald Farnes, who lost his wife, Julie, and son, Adam, in the slide, was in court Monday for what was to have been the start of the trial. His emotions were mixed.
“There are so many things that we would want to go to trial for, to have them come out in the public,” he said. “It is almost a disappointment not having them come out at trial, but it is also a relief.”
Farnes said he appreciated that a representative from the timber company met with family members Monday morning and offered an apology.
Farnes has since remarried. He was accompanied in court Monday by his wife, Deborah, who also lost her previous spouse, Tom Durnell, in the slide.
Dayn Brunner, whose sister Summer Raffo died after being buried in the mud while driving along Highway 530, said his thoughts were with her in court.
“The biggest thing I want to see from this is that my sister’s legacy lives on,” he said.
Some of the money from the settlement will be used to help establish a permanent memorial for the 43 people who died in the 2014 disaster. Planning for that is in the early stages, he said.
Karen and Tom Pszonka lost six people to the slide: daughter Katie, son-in-law Shane Ruthven; the couple’s two boys Hunter, 6, and Wyatt, 4; and Shane Ruthven’s parents, Lou and JuDee Vandenburg.
From the beginning, the case has been about seeking justice for those were killed, Karen Pszonka said in an email.
“I think, at times, that focus for justice has been the only thing to get us through the dark times,” she said. She hopes that people will learn from the disaster.
“I never want anyone to feel this loss,” Karen Pszonka said. “We miss them every hour of every day.”
John Phillips, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said among the lessons from the case is the need for more conversations between geotechnical experts and people living in communities at risk of slides.
“We are just delighted to be part of giving them some measure of closure,” he said of the victims’ families.
Emily Harris, another lawyer representing people who were harmed by the slide, said documents showing where the state and the timber company went wrong are available for anyone to review as part of the court file.
Harris had a lead role in uncovering that the experts who the state hired to form opinions about the cause of the slide had been systematically destroying internal emails discussing their work for almost a year and a half. The plaintiffs’ attorneys demanded court sanctions in August.
The court penalty includes $394,332 to reimburse the plaintiffs’ legal costs in uncovering the misconduct, and double that amount — $788,664 — as a punishment to deter similar actions in the future.
“A sanction of this size and magnitude is historic,” said Darrell Cochran, another attorney for the plaintiffs. “I’ve been involved in past cases where monumental sanctions awards have been awarded and this is the largest of its kind. It is designed to fit the nature of the offense here. It is designed to radically change a way of doing business by a legal office that we all count on to stand above reproach. The Attorney General’s Office destroyed evidence in a case where dozens of people died or survived in torment for the rest of their lives, and to betray the public’s trust in this case above all others should strike everyone as absolutely abhorrent. What happened simply cannot be tolerated.”
Rogoff said the court sanction could have been much worse if the state had not responded honorably in the weeks since the missing emails came to light. The judge in particular praised Rene Tomisser, senior counsel at the state Attorney General’s Office.
“His behavior since the revelation of these emails, combined with his office’s willingness to serve the public under incredibly difficult circumstances, is the primary reason this monetary sanction is not more by an order of magnitude,” Rogoff wrote in his order.
The state also must pick up the tab for forensic computer experts to unearth missing electronic records and to pay for a retired judge to review internal communications on behalf of the court.
The judge noted that the state’s willingness to settle could have been influenced by his ruling last week, which would have resulted in jurors being told about the hidden emails. He said at the close of the trial he would instruct jurors that they could draw an “adverse inference” from the state’s misconduct.
The state spent roughly $3 million on scientific studies in preparation for the trial, including information from the first-ever investigative drilling on the hill. The experts said much of what people believed about the hill that fell simply wasn’t supported by science. That work was undermined, however, by questions raised by the state’s mishandling of the experts’ emails. Plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged that the results had been tailored to insulate the state from liability.
Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark did not comment on the settlement Monday. He oversees the Department of Natural Resources which reviews and approves applications for logging.
“We’re going to defer to the Attorney General’s Office for comment,” said DNR spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser.
Gov. Jay Inslee did not publicly comment Monday but his spokeswoman did.
“This is good news for everyone involved, particularly for the families that will not have to sit through a long and difficult trial,” said Tara Lee, Inslee’s deputy communications director.
The governor had been in contact with Ferguson and Goldmark about the situation, she said
In response to the deadly mudslide, DNR revised its rules for logging in landslide-prone areas to ensure there is enough scientific data to show the safety of the public is protected.
The timber harvest application has been reworked to clarify that the agency can and may require additional geotechnical reports when logging is proposed near potentially unstable slopes or landforms.
The change is intended to make sure adequate study is done when logging is planned in areas with deposits of glacial sediment where deep-seated landslides have occurred in the past and are at risk of occurring again. This is the same type of geologic conditions in the hill above Steelhead Haven, the neighborhood that was wiped out by the Oso mudslide.
Also, the Department of Natural Resources received $4.6 million in the current state budget to expand its use of lidar to map geological hazards.
Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a laser-based technology that provides three-dimensional detail in mapping an area’s geology. It can help geologists accurately locate landslides and evaluate their history. The hills bordering the North Fork Stillaguamish River have been unleashing massive slides for thousands of years, studies since the disaster have confirmed.
Lawyers had been prepared Monday to present opening statements. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said they still planned to do so, privately in their offices, for the survivors of those lost in the mudslide.
“We are going to make sure that our loved ones didn’t pass in vain and that their legacy will live on,” Brunner said.