SEATTLE — Attorneys for the state of Washington have denied allegations of fraud in the deletion of emails by their expert witnesses in preparing for a trial over a deadly 2014 landslide. But they acknowledge emails were deleted and at least one state attorney was aware of it, according to a brief filed Friday in King County Superior Court.
Earlier this month, the victims’ attorneys claimed the email deleting began with a pact approved by the attorney general to hide what was being done. The plaintiffs said they obtained some of the emails that were mistakenly spared from deletion and allege the emails show the experts were “constantly shifting their story in service of the state’s defense.”
State attorneys acknowledge a mistake was made when some of the state’s experts decided to delete certain emails related to the case.
“No attorney for the State ever directed experts to delete emails, to reach a particular conclusion, or to change their opinions,” the state’s attorneys wrote. “The experts reached this agreement not as part of some nefarious plot, but rather based on their understanding, from work on prior cases, that their e-mails would not need to be disclosed so long as their final report detailed all of the evidence that they considered.”
No state attorney encouraged that practice, but one was aware of it, according to court documents. That attorney sincerely believed, according to the brief, that none of the emails would have to be disclosed under applicable rules.
“While that sincere belief was incorrect, it was not part of an effort to hide harmful evidence,” the attorneys wrote.
Attorneys said the state failed to make clear that substantive email communications about the case needed to be preserved. They said the state has now done everything it can be reasonably expected to do to recover those emails. The state believes it will soon have a virtually complete set of emails that were ever exchanged between the experts, documents said.
The state is also offering to pay the costs to make their experts available for follow-up deposition by the victims’ attorneys to discuss the emails and offered to pay any costs related to the plaintiffs’ bringing their motion in this matter, documents said.
State attorneys said those costs should be a “more than sufficient sanction” for the errors made by the state. They urged the judge to deny other sanctions requested by the victims’ attorneys.
A total of 43 people were killed in the March 22, 2014, slide in Oso, about 60 miles northeast of Seattle.
The lawsuit is expected to involve one of the largest tort claims in Washington history. The state, Snohomish County and Grandy Lake Forest Associates, the firm that logged land above the slide, are named as defendants.