Snohomish County avoids more court battles over Oso mudslide

An appeals court upheld an earlier decision excluding the county from suits over slide deaths, injuries.

OSO — The state Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling that shields Snohomish County from lawsuits seeking damages related to the deadly Oso mudslide.

The same case two years ago resulted in a $60 million settlement for mudslide survivors and representatives for some of the 43 people killed in the disaster. The state of Washington and a private timber company paid the settlement after plaintiffs attorneys discovered that some attorneys from the other side had systematically destroyed documents that should have been shared before trial.

The judge, by that point, had already excluded the county from the case. The plaintiffs appealed.

“It is beyond question that appellants suffered terrible losses, but their theories and evidence do not establish a basis for holding the county liable for those losses,” the three-judge panel wrote.

County attorneys received word of the ruling soon after it was issued on Monday.

The disaster struck on a Saturday morning in March 2014. A 600-foot-tall hillside collapsed, sending mud, rock and other debris across the North Fork Stillaguamish River. The slide buried the rural Steelhead Haven neighborhood and a stretch of Highway 530.

Historically, county officials had been more concerned with flood danger than mudslides along that stretch of river. There had, nevertheless, been some troubling warning signs. The same hillside experienced significant earth movements in 1951, 1967 and 1988, though nothing, in recent history, like what would come later.

A slide in the same area blocked the river in 2006, but stopped short of houses. Afterward, the Stillaguamish Tribe built a cribwall at the toe of the slope to minimize further erosion. The log structure measured about 1,500 feet long and 15 feet high.

A key issue for the courts was whether the county could be held liable for any role in the cribwall construction.

King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff ruled the county was protected from liability because of a state law intended to encourage county governments to address flood dangers and to protect fish habitat.

The three-judge appeals panel agreed. They rejected arguments from plaintiffs’ lawyers that the wall had nothing to do with flood protection.

“The immunity statute requires that an act relate to flood control,” the appeals court ruling says. “It does not require that flood control be the exclusive purpose.”

The appellate judges also found no evidence that anyone from the county gave false assurances to the community that there would be no further landslides after the 2006 incident.

This past spring, a different group of families reached an $11.5 million settlement over slide-related deaths and injuries with the state and Grandy Lake Forest Associates, LLC, the Mount Vernon timber company that logged nearby land.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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