Snohomish County wins key battle in Oso mudslide lawsuit

OSO — A King County judge this week significantly reduced the ability of people harmed in the Oso mudslide to claim Snohomish County officials failed to adequately warn them of the risks connected to where they made their homes.

In a written ruling Monday, King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff held that only those who attended a March 2006 meeting, or those “who relied on the substance” of information shared at that meeting, can press claims that they were insufficiently warned.

Snohomish County officials called the 2006 meeting with people who lived in the Steelhead Haven neighborhood to discuss flooding and other risks after a slide blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River that year.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers contend the county called the meeting to warn about landslide risks. The county, meanwhile, claims that people at the meeting were told the government no longer would provide them with protection from likely future flooding. It also asserts that landslide activity linked to that flooding was unpredictable.

The law is clear that the county only can be held responsible for what it promised to do, Rogoff ruled.

“No evidence exists that the county promised to monitor the slide, further investigate the slide or do any other act that would enhance its warning abilities,” the judge wrote. “The county owed no duty to engage in further affirmative acts to improve its ability to warn. Rather, the county owed a duty to adequately warn the residents of Steelhead Haven based upon the information they had at the time they affirmatively acted to do so.”

In all, 43 people were killed and dozens of others injured in March 2014 when a wall of mud and trees raced across the Stillaguamish River valley.

Lawyers representing the families of those harmed have argued that county officials knew, or should have known, that the hillside above Steelhead Haven was dangerously unstable. Key to their claim are numerous studies of slides at the site, some dating back decades.

The county has countered that none of the reports gave them a clear warning that the hillside was poised to collapse in 2014 with such disastrous consequences. Moreover, the county and other parties being sued contend there was more opinion than science behind one expert’s 1999 report that hinted at the potential for a huge slide.

The Oso litigation is believed to be the state’s largest-ever wrongful death case. Karen Willie, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs’ families, declined to talk about the implications of this week’s ruling.

“I am not comfortable discussing a judge’s order when there’s active litigation,” Willie said.

Earlier in June, the judge ruled that the county, state and a timber company being sued in the case may ask jurors to consider that the disaster was an “act of God,” and that those harmed may also bear some responsibility through contributory negligence.

Trial in the case is set for fall.

Attorneys for the state and county earlier asked for more time to consider the results of drilling that state experts conducted over the past year in an effort to better understand the geology of the hillside and how water moved through the ground. The work has raised questions about some widely held theories, including the suggestion that logging over the years was a primary reason that water saturated the hillside and triggered a collapse.

Scientific examinations of the area since the 2014 slide paint a complex picture, including signs that similar giant slides have occurred repeatedly in that valley since the Ice Age.

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

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