$2.3 Million - Largest Wrongful Death Jury Verdict in Skagit County History at the Time

Early one November morning, following heavy rains, a massive mudslide roared down Lookout Mountain into Cascade River Park, a recreational development in eastern Skagit County. Bill Bower, 74, Alice Bower, 73, and Betsy Jean Wilson, 63, were killed instantly. Claire Wilson, 64, was buried alive for 13 hours before he was pulled from the debris; he died 13 days later.

Plaintiffs' attorneys Dean Brett of Brett Law's Bellingham office, Dave Svaren of Burlington's Twede & Svaren, and John Ward of Sedro Woolley faced two main challenges. First, since the mudslide originated from an old logging road that had been abandoned for 23 years, how could the jury be convinced to hold the state liable for a defect in a road built in the 40's and not used since 1962? Second, since the four retirees of modest means were not generating any income or supporting any dependents, how could a jury be convinced to award an appropriate sum for a loss which, although tragic, carried no easily definable economic impact?

The attorneys focused on the Department of Natural Resources' practice of not inspecting or maintaining old logging roads which had been abandoned before the 1974 Forest Practices Act. The central liability theme was presented in the question: is the Department of Natural Resources' practice of refusing to inspect or maintain pre-1974 logging roads, even above established residential communities, negligent?

The DNR admitted to the lack of inspections but argued that since there are thousands of miles of old logging roads, it would be impractical or impossible to inspect or maintain all of them. Plaintiffs countered with a team of experts who documented the danger associated with this practice. The liability team consisted of a geomorphologist, a climatologist, a forest hydrologist, and a forester.

The geomorphologist testified that landslides such as this occur when four interrelated conditions are present: steep slopes, recurrent heavy rainfall, unstable fill at switchbacks on logging roads, and defective drainage. The fourth critical factor, defective drainage, is particularly within human control; thus, DNR's failure to inspect and correct the defective drainage was found to be a direct cause of the landslide.

The climatologist analyzed the weather data to demonstrate that the mudslide was not caused simply by an unusually massive rainstorm. By analyzing all of the rainfall data ever obtained in the surrounding area, he estimated that the four inches of rain that fell in the 24 hours preceding the mudslide would have a probability of recurring once every 13 years and consequently could not alone be blamed for the mudslide.

A noted forest hydrologist demonstrated that the blocked drainage had effectively rechanneled a natural stream onto the logging road at an area of instability. There the water saturated the unstable soil, increased its pore pressure, increased its mass and decreased the forces resisting a landslide to a point of disequilibrium.

Finally, a consulting forester pointed out that simple drainage control devices, well known in the logging industry at the time the road was abandoned in 1962, could have been installed so as to prevent the diversion of water that ultimately caused the mudslide.

The DNR blamed the mudslide on channel changes so recent that reasonable inspection could not have been expected to find them. The plaintiffs created videotapes on the site, aerial photography, and professional photography which demonstrated that the drainage diversion had existed for more than 10 years.

The second challenge was to convince the jury to award a substantial sum to compensate the adult survivors of the deceased victims. There was no future economic loss to the estates since the retirees had no income. And the survivors could prove no loss of support since the retirees provided no financial assistance to their adult children at the time of their deaths. The case was, in short, a claim for loss of love and affection.

The damages focus was that older people are just as valuable as younger people. This theme was re-enforced by asking jurors open-ended questions inviting them to describe their own parents, the value they place on the relationship with their own parents, and the value they place on the elderly within our society. Final argument by lead attorney Dean Brett emphasized the themes of love of family, the value of the elderly, and the value of grandparents in teaching important values to future generations. In addition, plaintiffs argued for a substantial verdict to compensate Claire Wilson's estate for the 13 days of suffering prior to death.

The jury returned a verdict of $500,000 for each death, plus $250,000 for pain and suffering for the 13 days of Claire Wilson's hospitalization. Total verdict, including special damages of $78,172.10, was $2,328,172.10. The award was appealed. The lawsuit was settled for $1,914,272.25.

The case is Estate of Claire Wilson, et ux., et al. v. Georgia Pacific and the State of Washington, Department of Natural Resources, Skagit County Cause No. 86-2-00164-9.

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