SEATTLE — Legal fallout lingers more than four years after the catastrophic Oso mudslide.
The state of Washington and a private timber company in April quietly reached an $11.5 million settlement with a second group of plaintiffs seeking damages for slide-related deaths, injuries, property loss and emotional distress from witnessing the disaster. That agreement follows a $60 million payout that the state and the timber company made to a larger group of plaintiffs in the fall of 2016.
Attorney Emily J. Harris represented the families of Shelley Bellomo and Sandy Miller, who were among the 43 people killed.
“I think it is a great result for our clients, people who were affected by the Oso landslide but were not part of the first case,” Harris said last week. “It provides them with a sense of closure for something that they’ve lived with now for a number of years. We’re quite happy to have obtained that result for them.”
Attorney Corrie Yackulic, who represented several other families in the case, called it “a fair outcome.”
“We accomplished the settlement before our clients were exposed to any intrusive discovery,” Yackulic said.
The agreement concluded all but one wrongful death claim pending in King County Superior Court.
It isn’t the only Oso-related legal development in recent months.
The state Court of Appeals is set to review a judge’s decision in 2016 to exclude Snohomish County during an earlier stage of the case. No hearing has been scheduled. The appeals court will determine whether the county has to defend itself from claims brought by both groups.
The county also reached a legal settlement in June to end its federal lawsuit against four insurance carriers over covering defense costs related to the mudslide. The insurance kicked in after the county paid the first $1 million in legal expenses. The carriers will be responsible for future defense costs.
The mudslide hit on the morning of March 22, 2014. A hillside collapsed, sending a slurry of mud, rock and trees across the North Fork Stillaguamish River and over the rural Steelhead Haven neighborhood on the opposite bank. Debris buried a stretch of Highway 530 and other nearby homes.
The lawsuit alleged that the state, county and timber company knew the hillside posed a serious risk to neighbors but didn’t do enough about it. Significant earth movements had been documented there in 1951, 1967 and 1988. The plaintiffs’ attorneys contended that after another slide crossed the river in 2006, government and timber officials failed in their duty to “warn, inform or educate the residents of Steelhead Haven” about elevated risks. Attorneys sought to probe the role played by man-made alterations to the land, including timber harvests and a crib wall at the toe of the slope.
The settlement was reached April 16. It does not specify which portion of the $11.5 million was paid by the state of Washington and which portion by Grandy Lake Forest Associates, LLC, a Mount Vernon-based timber company. The amount each plaintiff received is confidential.
The Daily Herald requested a copy of the agreement from the state Attorney General’s Office.
“This settlement of the legal chapter of this tragedy represents a fair resolution for all parties,” said Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. “This resolution does not involve taxpayer dollars. The state’s excess insurance carriers are covering the plaintiffs’ damages.”
The agreement also resolved claims related to five other deaths: Linda McPherson; Larry Miller, Sandy Miller’s husband; husband and wife Thom and Marcy Satterlee; and the Satterlees’ granddaughter, Delaney Webb.
It also settled claims related to personal injury, emotional distress or property damage suffered by Gary McPherson, a survivor whose wife, Linda, was killed in the slide. Some of the other plaintiffs sought compensation for destroyed property or emotional distress from witnessing the disaster.
One claim did not settle. It was brought on behalf of the estate of Steven Hadaway, a 53-year-old satellite technician who was installing a dish at a house when he was killed. The Darrington man was the second-to-last person searchers found in the debris field, two months after the slide.
Attorney Darrell Cochran is intent on pursuing the case.
“I think that Steven Hadaway’s family wanted to make sure that the entire story is told and that there is an opportunity for full justice and full transparency in his case, and that’s why they continue to try to push this toward trial,” Cochran said.
To settle with the first group of plaintiffs, the state paid $50 million and Grandy Lake Forest $10 million. The agreement materialized in October 2016 after revelations that documents were improperly withheld from the plaintiffs during pre-trial discovery.
The court imposed $1.2 million in sanctions against state attorneys over a plan to have their engineering experts systematically destroy emails about their work. A King County judge characterized the behavior as “more than an innocent, bumbling mistake,” as the state had contended, but “less than the conspiratorial cabal” described by the plaintiffs.
The Attorney General’s Office made reforms after an internal review. They included clearer guidance for private attorneys and outside experts to preserve documents when working on behalf of the state. The office also promised more training for staff and better management practices for complex cases.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys said they also hoped to spur reforms to safeguard people in Washington from future catastrophic mudslides. Harris and Yackulic said they have seen few changes, aside from the increased lidar mapping by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
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