Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp faces $30 billion of new wildfire claims

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A utility owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway faces $30 billion of new claims blaming it for causing Oregon wildfires in 2020, nearly four times the maximum loss it had projected.

One thousand victims filed claims against the PacifiCorp utility on Monday in a state court in Portland.

Victims are each seeking up to $5 million for actual losses such as property damage, and up to $25 million for non-economic losses such as emotional distress.

The claimants were added to litigation where a jury last June ordered PacifiCorp to pay $90 million to 17 claimants for gross negligence over its failure to shut down power lines during a Labor Day windstorm.

PacifiCorp is appealing. Through late February, the Portland-based utility had paid $735 million to settle wildfire claims by several hundred people and 10 timber companies.

In a statement on Tuesday, PacifiCorp said it had settled more than 1,000 Oregon wildfire claims and it would continue resolving reasonable claims under that state’s law.

It also said excessive claims posed an “ominous risk” to future investments in states that expose utilities to becoming “de facto insurers of last resort” as extreme weather becomes more prevalent.

“The $30 million demand for each plaintiff clearly demonstrates the need for some manner of reform in the legal process,” PacifiCorp said.

PacifiCorp is a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which is 92% owned by Buffett’s conglomerate.

The claims were filed two months after Buffett warned in his annual shareholder letter that wildfires could threaten the survival of utilities in a few states, an outcome he had not anticipated.

Buffett singled out California’s Pacific Gas & Electric, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019, and Hawaiian Electric, which faces many lawsuits over last August’s wildfires in Maui.

Berkshire ended 2023 with $2.4 billion of projected wildfire losses, and has said they could grow to $8 billion.

The federal government is seeking nearly $1 billion from PacifiCorp to cover costs of multiple wildfires in Oregon and Northern California, and has threatened a lawsuit.

Berkshire bought PacifiCorp for $5.1 billion in 2006.

The case is Henson et al v PacifiCorp et al, Oregon Circuit Court, Multnomah County, No. 20CV33885.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Jamie Freed)

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