Judge: Timber Firm Must Face Lawsuits in Oso Slide Disaster
(TNS) – A King County Superior Court judge has rejected a bid by a forest landowner to be dismissed as a defendant in lawsuits filed by survivors of the Oso landslide and the families of those who died.
In an 11-page ruling released Monday, Judge Roger Rogoff wrote that “significant evidence” exists from which a jury could determine that a Grandy Lake Forest Associates representative knew “that logging in the areas where he logged would increase the risk of landslide.”
Rogoff’s ruling helps set the stage for a trial scheduled for next June as plaintiffs seek damages in the aftermath of the massive landslide that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes on March 22, 2014.
The North Cascades are full of unstable terrain, and multiple factors can contribute to a major landslide. The Hazel landslide formation near Oso was a well-documented hazard zone in the Stillaguamish River valley that had unleashed slides over the decades.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have argued that logging over the years contributed to the deep-seated slope failure by allowing more water to seep into the slide zone.
They have contended that Grandy Lake Forest Associates should have monitored the slope following a 7.5-acre clear-cut in 2004 that was located just above the slide formation. Part of the harvest appeared to be in a sensitive water recharge area.
In a motion filed earlier this fall, Grandy Lake Forest Associates argued that it followed state Department of Natural Resources prescriptions for logging the area, and thus should be absolved of liability.
Rogoff said that Grandy Lake’s arguments could win the day but would have to do so in front of a jury. In his ruling, he found that compliance with rules “does not per se” excuse a defendant from claims of negligence.
Rogoff cited numerous studies of the slide area that “implicate logging practices as contributory factors to increased groundwater and landslide vulnerability.”
He noted that Grandy Lake’s manager, Kenneth Osborne, was part of a watershed team that conducted a detailed analysis of the landslide formation before the 2004 logging operation. Rogoff wrote that a defendant is held to a higher standard if he possesses “specialized knowledge, skills and expertise to assess the situation.”
Monday’s ruling was a boost for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who in August suffered a setback when Rogoff dismissed legal arguments that the state could be held liable for the mishandling of forest-practices regulations.
However, in Monday’s ruling Rogoff indicated that the State Department of Natural Resources might have liability as property owner in the landslide zone.
“It’s important that landowners have responsibilities to their neighbors when they have a hazardous condition on their land,” said Corrie Yackulic, an attorney representing some of the Oso families.
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