Rough battle ahead as groups prepare for Oso lawsuit

OSO — Roughly two months before a civil trial is set to start over whether anyone should be held responsible for the deadly 2014 Oso mudslide, a flurry of legal motions hint at just how bruising is the battle that lies ahead.

The pleadings filed in King County Superior Court show stark disagreement among the parties on the theories they plan to offer to explain the disaster’s origins.

Lawyers also are firing off accusations that their cases may be compromised by conflicting legal strategies, surprise witnesses and allegedly withheld evidence.

Snohomish 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.

As the autumn trial approaches, no punches are being pulled.

Perhaps the most explosive claim comes from lawyers representing people harmed in the disaster. They now are accusing Snohomish County officials of trying to limit damage claims by deliberately not gathering up detailed, forensic evidence about each of the 43 people who died when a wall of mud and trees swept across the North Fork Stillaguamish River Valley.

Autopsies were performed on six of the dead. The team of medical examiners who engaged in the grisly work of identifying the human remains recovered from the slide say that was appropriate because the devastating injuries left no doubt all of the victims succumbed swiftly to blunt-force trauma, court papers show.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have a forensic expert who will testify the medical examiners’ methods were shoddy and the decision inappropriate. Moreover, the attorneys contend county officials hoped to make it impossible to demonstrate the sequence of the victims’ injuries and thus potentially limit any damages that could be awarded based on conscious pain and suffering.

“Snohomish County found only what they set out to find through a cursory examination of the decedents,” the attorneys said in court papers.

The county’s legal team is expected to file a formal response before the court hears the motion Aug. 5.

In recent weeks, they’ve been urging Judge Roger Rogoff to act on his June 27 ruling that reduced the ability of people to claim Snohomish County officials failed to adequately warn of the risks connected to the Steelhead Haven neighborhood, where most of the slide victims made their homes.

Rogoff ruled such claims only can be brought by people who attended, or “who relied on the substance” of information shared by the county in a March 2006 meeting after an earlier slide blocked the river.

Exactly what was said at the meeting is in dispute. Plaintiffs’ lawyers contend the county provided a misleading warning about landslide risks. The county says 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.

The county asked Rogoff to enforce his ruling by dismissing dozens of claims brought by those representing people who weren’t at the meeting. Lawyers for those people contend that they ought to get to make their case that they relied on information shared at the meeting.

Meanwhile, the county, state and the timber company have asked the judge to structure the trial so jurors must decide liability questions prior to hearing testimony about the damages sustained by people when the hill fell.

“The issues the jury must resolve are complex,” the lawyers wrote. “The liability portion of the case involves duties allegedly owed by two governmental entities and one private company, and whether Defendants are liable for the damages caused by an unpredicted act of nature.”

The liability issues will focus on geology, forestry, hydrology, engineering and a complicated history of human interaction with the hill. “The testimony the parties will present on damages also will be complex, and it will be emotionally wrenching,” the lawyers wrote.

The county, state and timber company worry jurors’ decisions may be unduly influenced if they first listen to dozens of people testify about lost family and shattered lives. “It is a natural reaction for any juror to conclude that ‘someone’ must be to blame for the tragic deaths of 43 people,” they wrote.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say splitting the trial as proposed is unnecessary and would force people who lost family in the mudslide to testify twice. They also accused the defendants of “an attempt to sanitize the magnitude” of what was at risk before the hill fell in 2014.

The trial in the case had been scheduled for this summer, but was reset to allow more time to consider the work of state experts who have conducted drilling and analysis of how groundwater moves through the hill.

The work over the past year has challenged some widely held theories about the geologic makeup of the hillside and the allegation that logging over the years made it dangerously soggy and prone to collapse. Scientific examinations of the area since 2014 also show similar giant slides have occurred repeatedly in that valley since the Ice Age.

State experts haven’t yet concluded what they think caused the 2014 slide, but they are prepared to testify that evidence shows logging wasn’t a significant factor, and that rain that soaked into the hillside wasn’t directed into the slide, court papers show.

In addition, state experts say it is now clear the hillside was so geologically complex as to preclude “any reasonable predictability of the timing of a long-runout landslide within the perspective of a human lifetime.”

Lawyers representing the bulk of the plaintiffs recently told the judge they don’t intend to prove the county, the state or the timber company caused the slide, but instead were negligent in warning or failed to take actions that would have addressed the risk of “land made more dangerous by human alterations.”

They asked the judge to schedule a separate trial for clients represented by attorney Karen Willie, whose theory of the case focuses on “additions of humanly created water” and the role it played in the slide and devastation it caused.

Those seeking a separate trial argued the differing plaintiffs’ theories could confuse jurors. If a single trial was ordered, the lawyers asked that they not be required to sit near Willie to make clear their differing positions.

Willie also asked for separate trials, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the other plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“Lawsuits have landscapes that constantly change,” she wrote.

In a written order, Rogoff last week told all of the attorneys to prepare a single trial, as scheduled.

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

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