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Oso landslide lawsuit settled: Could climate change affect future cases?

Victims' families and survivors of the 2014 landslide in Oso, Wash. reached settlements worth $60 million. More complicated cases involving links to climate change may be on the horizon, say experts.

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    In this March 24, 2014, file photo, the massive mudslide that killed 43 people in the community of Oso, Wash., is viewed from the air.
    Ted S. Warren/AP
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A Washington timber company agreed to pay $10 million on Monday to survivors and families of victims of a 2014 landslide in Oso, northeast of Seattle, adding to a separate $50 million settlement with the state one day earlier.

Forty-three people died in the landslide, the deadliest in US history. The families blame logging on the slope above where the slide happened, saying that the timber company, Grandy Lake Forest Associates LLC, cut down more trees than permitted in 2004, making the slope more prone to collapse, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plaintiffs also cited the Washington Department of Natural Resources’ decision to build a retaining wall at the base of an unstable hill, while failing to inform nearby residents of the risk posed by landslides. Both the company and the state deny wrongdoing.

Environmental legal experts say that as the effects of climate change make such disasters more likely, governments may be increasingly susceptible to lawsuits if they don’t take changing conditions into account in their planning.

In an April report on government liability and climate change, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers Jon Kusler noted that no US government agency had yet been found liable for damages by failing to incorporate the effects of climate change into its programs or policies.

But in cases where floods, landslides and other events are found to be directly responsible for damages to private property, he wrote, courts are increasingly holding governments liable. With broad consensus among scientists that climate change would exacerbate such catastrophes, successful lawsuits brought against governments that don’t properly foresee potential damages related to the effects of climate change “may be expected in the coming years.” And as scientists get better at modeling and monitoring the effects of climate change, “climate-related natural hazards will be increasingly quantified, foreseeable and predictable”.

Lawsuits that blame landslides on the state, or the activity of neighbors and nearby companies, tend to be expensive cases to mount, according to legal experts. And they’re generally not easy to argue, since they often involve uncontrollable natural factors, like an increase in precipitation leading up to the event.

“To try to disprove that rain caused it and to try to prove there's some other contributing cause is difficult,” said Los Angeles lawyer Kenneth Chiate, who represented over 100 clients in one 1983 case, in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

One claim in the Oso case has yet to be resolved: the plaintiffs’ appeal of an earlier ruling that dismissed the county government from the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Dayn Brunner, whose sister Summer Raffo was killed as she drove to work along a highway that was swallowed up by the Oso landslide, told the Associated Press that some of the money from the settlement would go toward erecting a permanent memorial on the site.

“My No. 1 priority was to ensure my sister’s legacy lived on,” he said. “Today was an affirmation of that.”

In accepting the settlement, Judge Roger Rogoff said that for the victims, “no legal settlement … or anything that happens in a courtroom could ever replace what you have lost,” according to the Seattle Times.

“But I hope it brings some sense of closure,” he added.

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