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Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 08:16 PM

Jury decides for logging firm in 2009 Lewis County mudslide suit

By Lisa Broadt
The Chronicle

Multinational logging company Menasha was not negligent in its logging practices, and therefore should not be held financially accountable for the 2009 landslide that damaged more than a dozen Glenoma properties, a Lewis County Superior Court jury has ruled.

Their decision, returned Friday, followed a six-week trial in which 23 residents of Glenoma sought approximately $5.7 million in damages.

During the trial, the Glenoma plaintiffs asserted that a "steep and unstable slope" was created by Menasha when the company logged 116 acres of timber directly above their residences.

On Jan. 7, 2009, jams — formed by logging debris that accumulated water — exploded into violent flash floods that damaged the plaintiffs' property and caused them bodily injury and emotional distress, the plaintiffs said.

In a pretrial brief, attorneys for the plaintiffs asserted that Menasha knew that clear-cutting in Glenoma would increase the risk of landslides by at least 200 percent.

"In assessing the degree of risk it was willing to take, Menasha knew that there were homes directly below this unit, sitting vulnerably in harm's way," the document states. "Menasha took that risk and now Menasha — not the innocent homeowners below — should shoulder the consequences."

But, the defense countered, Menasha followed all logging rules and regulations as set forth by Washington state — including those intended to prevent mudslides.

"What the plaintiffs really are intent on is a policy argument about clear-cut logging on steep slopes" court documents, authored by the defense, state. The plaintiffs should take their grievances to the Legislature rather than trying to pin them on a logging company, the defense said.

"This is especially true when plaintiffs chose to purchase homes located on an area historically prone to landsliding," the documents state.

Menasha is not liable simply because a landslide occurred, the defense concluded — a statement with which the jury ultimately agreed.

If the jury had found Menasha negligent, they could have awarded financial compensation based on the value of damaged or destroyed personal property, land and fixtures; the nature and extent of the plaintiffs' injuries; and the extent of the disability, disfigurement or loss of enjoyment in life that the plaintiffs suffered.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys now must determine if they have the grounds for appeal, and whether the plaintiffs have the resources to continue their already four-year legal battle.

Plaintiff Bessie Hurley said she was "very, very disappointed" with the decision. "We were raped four years ago, and we were raped again this morning," Hurley said. "The deck was stacked against us because of the low down, dirty crap (Menasha) pulled."

Hurley's front yard — cut through by a chasm and studded with logs and boulders — is a daily reminder of what Hurley describes as Menasha's wrongdoing.

Although she fears that pursuing further legal action could leave her family in debt, she wants to continue.

"I would like them to recognize what they did wrong," she said. The jury's verdict, she added, sent the wrong message to Menasha.

"They think they can do whatever they want with no consequences," Hurley said.

If the plaintiffs do decide to appeal, they must do so at the state's Court of Appeals within 30 days, according to Robert Wright, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

In 2009, one moment, all was peaceful in snow-covered Glenoma. The next, a wall of mud was headed toward the community of residences near Martin Road.

Though caused — at least in part — by a period of heavy snowfall followed by warm temperatures and abundant rain, the extent of the disaster left many locals convinced that logging practices were to blame.

In the immediate aftermath of the mudslide, resident Mike Wood said he hoped to seek legal action with Wright's help, who specializes in property damage.

"People have evidence if you cut into these steep slopes, landslides will occur," Wright said. "A lot of people have suffered some pretty severe damages through no fault of their own."

Court Stanley, president of Port Blakely, another logging company that cleared areas near Glenoma, disputed that claim.

"Landslides are natural, and no landslides have been initiated by us (in these areas)," he told The Chronicle in 2009. "However, some have been initiated by previous landowners. ... We do everything we can to make sure landslides don't occur."


DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Overview of mudslides and damage to the valley around the town of Glenoma in 2009.




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