UPDATE — (with 74 photos) — Unclear if Oso mudslide lawsuits could win in court
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The Associated Press/Skybox Imaging
This satellite image provided by Skybox Imaging and captured by SkySat-1 on Tuesday (April 1) at 12:19 p.m. PDT shows the area of the mudslide in Oso.
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(Everett) Daily Herald/Sofia Jaramillo via The Associated Press
Adisorn Gronski, left, prays while monks from the Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery in Woodinville chant Tuesday (April 1) for victims of the deadly Oso mudslide.
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(Everett) Daily Herald/Mark Mulligan via The Associated Press
A sheriff's official takes photos of debris from the massive mudslide on Tuesday (April 1).
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The Associated Press
Tayler Drayton, 16, on Thursday (April 3) finishes painting words of support on a bus stop for those affected by the deadly mudslide in Oso.
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The Associated Press
Workers search an area next to large mounds of dirt on Tuesday in the debris field of the deadly Oso mudslide.
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The Associate Press
Workers use hand tools next to heavy equipment at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A tattered flag, found in the debris of a deadly mudslide, is flown at a staging area for emergency workers on state Highway 530.
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The Associated Press
A stuffed bear sits with other items found Wednesday (April 2) in the mudslide's debris field.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Benton County assistant fire chief Jack Coats surveys the landscape at the scene of the deadly mudslide on Wednesday. An excavator works below to clear a drainage channel.
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The Associated Press
Searchers work with heavy equipment near the edge of the deadly mudslide on Wednesday (April 2).
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A now-barren hillside overlooks the valley below at the scene of the deadly mudslide on Wednesday (April 2).
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Marcus Yam/The Seattle Times via The Associated Press
Rescue workers dig through a pile of debris marked with "PV" (Possible Victim) in the flooded areas on the east side of the massive mudslide along Highway 530 near Darrington on Saturday. , March 29, 2014. Marcus yam/The Seattle Times
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The Associated Press
A flag flies at half-staff on a log Sunday with the slope of the massive Oso mudslide in the background.
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The Associated Press
Firefighters carefully cross a pool of water, using a fallen tree as a path, at the west side of the mudslide on Highway 530 near mile marker 37 on Sunday, March 30.
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The Associated Press
A rescue worker with his mudied work boots taped to his pants
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The Associated Press
A search dog and its handlers at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press
Taken before the mudslide, this photo provided by parents Amanda Skorjanc and Ty Suddarth shows little Duke Suddarth asleep near a dog. The 5-month-old baby rescued from the Oso landslide was listed Sunday in serious condition but improving at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
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The Associated Press
Rescue workers use chainsaws and other tools to dig through a tangle of trees and mud marked as having a possible victim of the Oso mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A searcher walks through the scene of the mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A basketball floats amid muck and debris left by the Oso mudslide along State Route 530 near Darrington.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Workers and volunteers observe a moment of silence outside of the Oso Fire Department at 10:37 a.m. Saturday, exactly one week after a fatal mudslide struck just east of the small community.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Searchers pause for a moment of silence at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Searchers pause for a moment of silence at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Rescue workers continue to search the muck and debris left by the Oso mudslide along State Route 530 near Darrington.
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The Associated Press
A customer rests her hands on a tee-shirt for sale at an Arlington sporting goods store, with proceeds to be directed to victims of the deadly landslide.
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Seattle Times/Mike Siegel via The Associated Press
Members of the Air Force National Guard including Major Tawny Dotson, left, and Master Sgt. Chris Martin are assisting with search and rescue efforts at the Oso mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A mangled vehicle sticks up amid debris pulled from the west site of the mudslide on Highway 530 near mile marker 37 on Friday.
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The Associated Press (Click on photo to enlarge)
Workers help clear and sort the remains of houses at the west site of the mudslide on Highway 530 near mile marker 37 on Friday.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A worker carries bags of personal belongings collected from debris at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Workers use heavy equipment to clear trees and other debris Thursday as the search continued for victims of the massive mudslide near Oso.
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The Associated Press (Click on photo to enlarge)
Four search and rescue workers wade through water covering State Highway 530 on Thursday.
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The Associated Press
Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason speaks with the news media on Friday near the site of the deadly mudslide.
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Seattle Times/Marcus Yam via The Asociated Press
Firefighters help unload publicly donated equipment to aid the search and rescue operations in the aftermath of the massive mudslide.
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The New York Times (Click on graphic to enlarge)
This graphic uses a 2012 aerial photo to outline Saturday's mudslide and the houses it ruined. State Highway 530 and the Stillaguamish River also are shown. This graphic also can be accessed at www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/23/us/washington-mudslide.html
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A military helicopter flies Thursday, March 27, 2014, over mud and debris from the massive mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A cross at the Oso Community Chapel is decorated with flowers in dedication to mudslide victims.
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The Associated Press
Searchers work on a massive pile of debris on Thursday.
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The Associated Press
A searcher walks through the area hit by the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (To enlarge, click on photo)
Searchers on Thursday work at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Seattle Times/Marcus Yam via The Associated Press
Darrington volunteer firefighters (from left) Jeff McClelland, Jan McClelland and Eric Finzimer embrace Wednesday after saying a prayer. The town's volunteer firefighters have been on searches in the mudslide zone since Saturday.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A searcher tries to keep balance while walking through debris at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Searchers watch as a piece of heavy equipment slowly moves debris at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (Click on photo to enlarge)
Workers carrying hand tools walk into a debris area at the scene of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A flag, put up by volunteers helping search the area, stands in the ruins of a home.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
"We haven't lost hope that there's a possibility that we can find somebody alive in some pocket area," said Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots.
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The Associated Press
Rescue workers remove one of a number of bodies from the wreckage of homes destroyed by a mudslide near Oso.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Thick, oozing mud is cleared from States Highway 530 by workers using heavy equipment.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A search and rescue worker clears debris from a house on the western edge of the massive mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A volunteer arrives at the Oso Fire Department.
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The Associated Press
The massive mudslide that killed at least eight people and left dozens missing is shown in this aerial photo, taken Monday near Oso.
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The Seattle Times via The Associated Press (Click on photo to enlarge)
An aerial photo of the mudslide near the Snohomish County town of Oso.
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The Associated Press/The Herald, Genna Martin
Brian Anderson, left, and Coby Young on Sunday search through the wreckage of a home belonging to the Kuntz family. The entire Kuntz family was at a baseball game Saturday morning when the mudslide swept through the area. The family returned Sunday to search through what remained.
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The Associated Press/The Herald, Genna Martin
A woman holds family photos pulled from the rubble at the site of the mudslide.
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The Associated Press/The Seattle Times, Lindsey Wasson
The orange X on a house destroyed in the mudslide indicates it has been searched by searchers.
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(Everett) Daily Herald via The Associated Press (Click on photo to enlarge)
An aerial photo of Saturday's mudslide damage in rural Snohomish County near Oso.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
The huge mudslide in rural Snohomish County near Oso on Saturday.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
The huge mudslide in rural Snohomish County near Oso on Saturday.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
The huge mudslide in rural Snohomish County near Oso on Saturday.
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The Seattle Times via The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Robin Youngblood survived the landslide that destroyed her house next to the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. She is holding the only item that survived the disaster, a painting of a Cherokee warrior that was knocked from the wall and muddied. "It saved us." she said.
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The Associated Press
A sign is placed to direct those in need to a Red Cross shelter at Post Middle School in Arlington.
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(Everett) Daily Herald via Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Neighbors gather at the Oso Fire Department to look for updates about the mudslide.
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(Everett) Daily Herald via Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Neighbors gather at the Oso Fire Department to look for updates about the mudslide.
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(Everett) Daily Herald via Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
A woman collapses as neighbors gather at the Oso Fire Department to look for updates about the mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A demolished house sits in the mud on State Highway 530 on Sunday, the day after the giant landslide occurred.
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The Associated Press/The Herald, Genna Martin
Steve Skaglund walks across the rubble on the east side of Saturday's fatal mudslide.
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The Seattle Times/Marcus Yam via The Associated Press
At Darrington High School, local residents reach out and pray with one another at a community prayer vigil for the victims and survivors of the massive mudslide.
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The Associated Press
Workers comb through debri at the site of the deadly mudslide.
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The Associated Press (click on photo to enlarge)
Workers at the mudslide site before stopping for a moment of silence on Saturday
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The Associated Press
A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from the Port Angeles air station, piloted by 
Lt. Cmdr. Edward Geraghty and Lt. Jared Hylander, flies along the upper edge of the Oso mudslide on Monday. The helicopter flight was part of federal assistance in the continuing search-and-rescue operation.
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The Associated Press
A member of the congregation at Glad Tidings Assembly of God church in Darrington raises her hand as she sings during Sunday morning church services. Much of the music and speaking was devoted to reaction to the deadly mudslide that hit the nearby community of Oso.
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The Associated Press
A long-arm excavator Tuesday works the debris from the mudslide.
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The Associated Press
A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from the Port Angeles air station, piloted by 
Lt. Cmdr. Edward Geraghty and Lt. Jared Hylander, flies along the upper edge of the Oso mudslide on Monday. The helicopter flight was part of federal assistance in the continuing search-and-rescue operation.
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The Associated Press
A search worker Tuesday walks near a camper shell in the debris from the deadly mudslide.
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The Associted Press
Medical investigator Deb Hollis, left, embraces dog handler Christi Dudzik as therapy dog Paddy looks on at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office on Wednesday (April 2).

By GENE JOHNSON
The Associated Press

Hundreds at prayer service
ARLINGTON — Gov. Jay Inslee was among several hundred people who gathered Friday night for an interdenominational prayer service honoring the victims, families and rescuers affected by the deadly March 22 mudslide in Oso.

Hanging at the front of the Haller Middle School gym where the service took place was a large banner that simply said “Together.”

Clergy involved in planning the Arlington event wanted to reflect the connection among neighbors not only in Oso but in nearby Arlington and Darrington.

The audience twice gave standing ovations to first responders who continue to search the debris for missing people.

“Nobody, and I mean nobody, could be prepared for what we encountered,” Arlington Fire Chief Bruce Stedman told the crowd.

As of Friday, the toll stood at 30 people dead and 13 missing in the landslide.

“I’ve walked away many times, saying to myself, ‘Why, God, why?’” said chaplain Ralph Fry.

“And what I do know today is that God’s love sustains us in the darkest moments of our lives.”

Four private memorial services were scheduled this weekend for victims, slide response officials said Friday in a statement.
EDITOR'S NOTE — The Daily Herald of Everett, a sister newspaper of the Peninsula Daily News, has in-depth coverage of the Oso slide. Latest slide and Snohomish County information can be found on the Herald's website, www.heraldnet.com.

Related story: "Snohomish County mudslide — how to donate to victims, how to report someone missing": http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20140328/NEWS/303289959



SEATTLE — The warnings could hardly have been clearer.

One technical report told of the "potential for a large catastrophic failure" of the 600-foot hillside above a rural neighborhood near the mountainside community Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on the Stillaguamish River.

Another noted plainly that it "poses a significant risk to human lives and private property."

The danger was so apparent that Snohomish County officials mulled buying out the properties of the residents who lived there.

Instead, the county continued to allow the construction of homes nearby. Seven went up even after a significant slide approached the neighborhood in 2006.

Whatever the wisdom of its decision, the county might never be held liable in court for not doing more to protect residents, an outcome that would leave victims of last month's devastating landslide one fewer avenue for recovering financially for their damages.

Whether government agencies or landowners can be held liable for damages caused by landslides in Washington state is highly dependent on the facts of each case.

Generally, governments are not liable except in narrow circumstances, such as if an agency specifically tells the residents they're safe before a slide, or if an agency takes it upon itself to fix a hazard but actually makes things worse.

"This is a terrible tragedy and still very fresh. But it is nonetheless my concern that people turn to the government as the insurer of last resort," said David Bruce, a Seattle lawyer who represents governments in landslide-liability cases.

"The fact of the matter is that in the Puget Sound basin and the foothills of the Cascades, there's a tremendous amount of landslide-prone areas. The government isn't here to prevent people from suffering natural catastrophes."

The massive slide northeast of Seattle on March 22 obliterated the hamlet, temporarily blocked the river and wiped out a state highway, entombing dozens of victims in a slurry of mud, logs and debris.

Thirty bodies have been found. More than a dozen people remain missing.

Financial losses to homes and property total about $10 million, Gov. Jay Inslee said.

A major disaster declaration from President Barack Obama has cleared the way for help to the victims, but some lost their second homes, which aren't covered by disaster aid.

Homeowners insurance is also unlikely to cover the damage, though such policies might if it is ultimately determined that logging at the top of the hill helped cause the devastation.

It seems all but certain that at least some of the survivors or the estates of victims will sue to recover some of their damages, though such cases can be tough to win, lawyers said.

"I hope there is some recourse," said Davis Hargrave, a 73-year-old architect from Kirkland who lost his second home. "Were we informed of this danger? No, a very emphatic no.

"The county is happy to send you a bill for your utilities every month. Could somebody drop you a postcard and say, 'Hey we got word the mountain could fall on you?' Not even a postcard."

Karen Willie, a Seattle attorney who represents victims in landslide cases, said her office has started investigating the myriad issues that could determine whether the county or any uphill landowners — most notably, Grandy Lake Forest Associates LLC, which logged a pie-shaped area of about seven acres at the top of the hill — might be held to account.

The state also owns some land near the slide.

Grandy Lake Forest did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Several geotechnical experts have said they believe the main causes of the landslide were record rains and river erosion at the foot of the hill, but some have said logging could have played a role by removing trees that would have helped absorb the rainfall.

The state Department of Natural Resources has said that in its logging, Grandy Lake strayed about one acre into an area that was supposed to be protected because of groundwater concerns.

"I think that's going to be a key player here," said Joseph Wartman, a University of Washington engineering professor who is helping lead a federally funded team examining the landslide's causes.

"What we generally know is that logging and clear-cutting were not likely to enhance the stability of this landslide. The question is how deleterious those effects are."

Landowners generally can be held liable for any harm they unleash through logging or other activities, especially if they fail to exercise reasonable care. But it can be a heavy burden for plaintiffs to prove that a landslide wasn't simply a natural occurrence.

The technical reports from 1999 and 2000 did not warn of a catastrophe on the order of what happened last month.

But Willie said she was nevertheless stunned when she began reading one by Tracy Drury, a geotechnical consultant who warned of "significant risk to human lives and property." It isn't clear to what extent residents knew of the reports.

Some have told reporters they never knew the county had considered whether to buy out their properties.

"The Drury report is very strong language for a scientist to use," Willie said.

"Think about that: If somebody read you Drury's report and said they'd buy your property at fair-market value, and then you have to drive there with your kid in the car, would things have been different? I think so."

But outrage doesn't necessarily translate into liability.

"The beginning point of the law is that it's the responsibility of the landowner to be aware of the dangers on their own property," said David Bricklin, a Seattle lawyer who has represented landslide victims.

"If you go to the county and say, 'I'm worried about the landslide risk,' and the county says, 'Well, we'll do an investigation and figure it out and we won't issue a building permit unless it's safe,' then the county's in trouble. But that's not typically what the county does."

Drury's report warned that buying out the properties along the river would be difficult because some owners wouldn't want to leave. Instead, the report suggested placing a log structure in the river to protect the hillside from erosion.

The Stillaguamish tribe eventually did so.

Bricklin noted that when local governments deny someone a building permit, they can be sued for depriving the landowner of property rights. But they can't be sued for issuing a permit.

"It puts pressure on agencies to issue permits even when they think they know better," he said.

Last modified: April 05. 2014 3:27PM
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