The state Attorney General’s Office will investigate the deletion of emails by its own expert witnesses hired to help defend against a lawsuit brought by survivors and family members of the victims of the 2014 Oso landslide.
The state Attorney General’s Office will investigate the deletion of emails by its own expert witnesses hired as part of a high-stakes defense in a lawsuit brought by survivors and family members of the victims of the 2014 Oso landslide.
A stipulation submitted to King County Superior Court Friday calls for a forensic effort to determine whether any of the deleted emails can be recovered and offered to the plaintiffs. The agreement was signed by state and plaintiffs’s attorneys, and approved by King County Superior Judge Roger Rogoff.
The plaintiffs filled a motion last week that accused the state of concealing a pact made by the expert witness to read and then delete emails they exchanged between one another.
The plaintiffs attorneys say they sought to obtain those emails as part of pretrial discovery, and that the deletions harmed their efforts to prepare for the case scheduled for trial in early October. The attorneys allege the emails show the experts were “constantly shifting their story in service of the state’s defense.”
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The March 22, 2014, collapse of a hillside along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River unleashed a massive landslide that killed 43 people in the Steelhead Haven community.
The trial is scheduled to last for weeks and puts the state at risk of damages that could total tens of millions of dollars.
To prepare for the case, the state contracted with an expert team that grew to include seven specialists — including a forestry hydrologist and engineers — who have been paid more than $3 million to prepare a joint report submitted to the court earlier this year.
In an Aug. 2 deposition, one of these expert witnesses — Rune Storesrund — stated that the decision to delete emails was made in a spring 2015 meeting of the expert team. Two state attorneys attended that meeting but were not involved in the discussion, according to Storesrund.
Due to the deletions, the plaintiff’s attorneys have asked that Judge Rogoff impose sanctions ranging from instructing jurors to draw a “negative inference” from the email deletions to entering a liability judgment against the state.
The state will file a response to the plaintiff’s motion by Sept. 2, and a hearing on the motion is scheduled for Sept. 9.