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Weyerhaeuser Gambled With Lives As Volcano Threatened, Says Lawyer

November 15, 1985

SEATTLE (AP) _ The giant 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens may have been an ″act of God,″ but the negligence of Weyerhaeuser Co. toward its workers made the deaths under the volcano ″an act of man,″ a lawyer said in closing trial arguments.

Ron Franklin, representing nine people in a suit against the timber products giant, said Weyerhaeuser officials gambled with the lives of employees in the spring of 1980, and exhibited little care for their safety.

But Weyerhaeuser attorney Mark Clark, saying the trial required ″dignity and respect,″ countered Thursday that Franklin was depending too much on hindsight.

″No one could have known what would be forthcoming″ on May 18, 1980, Clark said. Scientists regularly warned of mudflows and ashfall, he said, but devastation like that which occurred ″was unknown. It was unknowable.″

Much more is known of volcanoes now, he said, in part because of the giant eruption of St. Helens. Scientific testimony showed the eruption was unique in the geologic history of the volcano, which first erupted some 40,000 years ago, he said.

The jurors today began deliberating the case, which began Oct. 14.

The nine plaintiffs, who include volcano victims and the families of loggers killed, have accused Weyerhaeuser of being negligent by keeping its workers too close to volcano after it burst to new volcanic life on March 20, 1980.

Fifty-seven people died in the eruption two months later which devastated 230 square miles when the volcano blasted laterally northward across the landscape, rather than sending a column straight up.

Franklin said Weyerhaeuser ″made a calculated risk to continue logging in an area (near the volcano) where they did not need to be.″

″Every day from March 20 to May 18 Weyerhaeuser gambled with the lives of its employees. And they won. They won. If it (the eruption) had happened on the next Monday there would have been 800 to 1,000 dead.

″I’ve always believed that the act of God was that it happened on a Sunday and not a Monday,″ he said.

Those who testified during the trial had said nearly all the dangers posed were from mudflows and flooding, and would have affected valley floors, Clark said. USGS geologist Dr. Donal Mullineaux testified the volcano blast greatly exceeded what might have been expected, he said.

Though Weyerhaeuser ordered work crews were not to work in valley bottoms, logging operations were on the hills and ridges, and none was halted or moved.

A major argument during the trial was whether there would be a warning time of at least a couple of hours. Clark said testimony had indicated it was generally believed there would be some warning time, though scientists never promised advanced warnings.

Franklin criticized the idea of a warning, saying Weyerhaeuser was ignoring scientific evidence that the volcano was unpredictable and powerful.

Clark, using scientific testimony and referring to the lands hit by the volcano’s lateral blast, said, ″The world’s leading scientists did not foresee that this area was within the general field of danger.″

Instructions to the jury from King County Superior Court Judge James McCutcheon noted the defendant contended the sole cause of injury was ″an act of God.″

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