OSO — Hours before the start of a civil trial to determine whether anyone should be held responsible for the carnage caused by the Oso mudslide, lawyers for those harmed announced they’ve reached a $50 million settlement to dismiss their claims against the state of Washington.
The settlement was announced Sunday afternoon in a press release from attorneys for the plaintiffs. The lawyers still planned to be in a Seattle courtroom on Monday morning pursuing their case against a Skagit County timber company who allowed logging in the area above where the hill fell.
The tragedy that ended 43 lives in March 2014 “could have been avoided,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. “The community was never given the chance to make a meaningful decision about landslide risks because the state and other defendants — who possessed critical information about the unstable and potentially devastating nature of those risks — refused to give them that information.”
Corrie Yackulic, a Seattle attorney who represented many of the mudslide victims, said she and the other plaintiffs’ attorneys were surprised that lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office and the state’s insurance companies opted to settle the case on the eve of trial. She didn’t speculate why.
“We will never know,” she said. “We have always felt that we had a strong case.”
The settlement doesn’t bring an end to the case and Yackulic said attorneys were still preparing for opening statements Monday morning focusing on the lone remaining defendant: Grandy Lake Forest Associates timber company.
The settlement comes just days after King County Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff said he plans to sanction state attorneys — and to let jurors know — for their role in a secret plan that saw emails routinely deleted among scientists and engineers hired to offer expert opinions on the disaster’s cause. The 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 settlement does not cover any compensation related to sanctions that the judge has said he plans to assess against the state.
Attorneys representing the families plan to submit a bill of $394,332 for work they did that was aimed at recovering the missing documents and holding the state accountable.
“The State will also pay the punitive monetary sanction determined by the Court separate and apart from the fee award, and the State asks the court to make that award at this time,” according to a copy of the two-page settlement agreement.
Under terms of the settlement with the state, the $50 million is due by Nov. 18. The agreement was signed by five attorneys representing the plaintiffs and approved by an assistant state attorney general and two private attorneys representing the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
State attorneys have described the litigation as Washington’s largest-ever wrongful death case. It arose from the human suffering that resulted when a wall of mud and trees thundered down on the Steelhead Haven neighborhood along the North Fork Stillaguamish River.
The plaintiffs alleged the state and timber company were responsible because they’d made the area more dangerous.
The state, they argued, was negligent for approving construction of a crib wall to contain debris from earlier, smaller slides, a project designed to protect fish from silt.
Snohomish County also was sued, but it was dismissed in mid-September. The action came after a series of pretrial rulings by Rogoff that significantly limited the plaintiffs’ ability to claim county officials were negligent.
In their press release Sunday, the plaintiffs attorneys said they will continue to appeal those rulings and try to revive their case against the county.
Yackulic credited her co-counsel, Emily Harris, for discovering the deletion of the experts’ emails, a practice that the judge ruled violated discovery rules.
“It was her diligence, her attention to detail and her doggedness that led to having questions about what we had and what we didn’t have,” Yackulic said.
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.
State experts have submitted reports questioning claims that logging over decades made the hillside prone to collapse. They say drilling shows any increased runoff from harvesting trees in the area didn’t flow toward the slide area and that the cribwall had nothing to do with the hill’s collapse.
Indeed, independent studies since the disaster have found signs of similar mudslide repeatedly racing across the valley for thousands of years.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused the state’s experts of tailoring their reports to reduce liability.
In their Sunday press release, the lawyers for those harmed said they plan to “continue to pursue steps to change the way government, landowners and timber companies address these types of landslides in the hope of avoiding similar tragedies in the future.”