News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Emotional harm claims added to fire suit

Survivors of destructive wildfires throughout Oregon in 2020 have been granted leave to file an amended class action lawsuit against PacifiCorp accounting for the ongoing struggles in the aftermath of the fires more than two years later.

During a hearing Dec. 19 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Judge Steffan Alexander granted a motion by plaintiffs to re-file their complaint, over objections by PacifiCorp that too little time was left to refute new claims before a trial scheduled for April 24, 2023.

The amended complaint, a preliminary copy of which was attached to plaintiffs’ motion, placed greater emphasis on the emotional and psychological suffering of thousands of Oregonians who were forced to evacuate due to the fires, as well as the struggles of those who have yet to return to their recovering communities. 

The complaint said these types of losses were “different and distinct” from typical fire damage, such as loss of property and physical harm, and ought to be weighed separately.

“Defendants’ violation constituted a uniquely serious violation of Plaintiffs’ separate legally protected right to be free from the fires and the fires’ effects that Defendants contributed to and caused, including forcing Plaintiffs to evacuate from their homes, experience displacement, and traverse public roadways obstructed by Defendants,” read the proposed complaint.

The amount sought by plaintiffs was unchanged, including $1 billion in non-economic damages and $600 million in economic damages/ Oregon law allow for twice the amount from wildfires caused through recklessness or gross negligence, putting total damages sought of at least $2.2 billion.

As of press time, a finalized amended complaint had yet to be filed. 

Attorneys for PacifiCorp told Alexander Dec. 19 they would need to confer before determining whether or not to file an amended response, or if their response to the previous version of plaintiffs’ complaint would stand.

PacifiCorp has denied liability and asked for dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims.

The suit was filed Sept. 30, 2020, by survivors of the Santiam fires, which devastated local cities that Labor Day. The case has since been certified as a class action and was expanded to include survivors of the Echo Mountain Complex, Obenchain, and 242 fires, and has been consolidated with several other wildfire-related lawsuits against PacifiCorp.

The class is estimated to total more than 5,000 individuals.

Potential sanction pending

With the motion for an amended complaint resolved, a separate motion remains pending asking to sanction PacifiCorp for allegedly disregarding a discovery order to provide information about the cause and origin of the fire. 

Alexander was expected to rule on the matter during a hearing Dec. 23, however the hearing was set over.

Plaintiffs argued PacifiCorp has repeatedly violated the order, including an Oct. 6 deposition when defense attorneys allegedly coached a PacifiCorp claims agent to limit her answers under the protections of attorney-client privilege. 

Plaintiffs asked Alexander to compel the claims agent to testify and to sanction PacifiCorp for their alleged obstruction, including costs incurred through filing the motion and the expense of continuing with the agent’s deposition.

On Dec. 19, the defense denied coaching the agent and said they gave standard reminders to not share privileged information, and said much of the information sought by plaintiffs was indeed protected because the agent was acting at the direction of PacifiCorp counsel to help them prepare their case. 

Plaintiffs argued these reminders had a chilling effect on the agent and compelled her to limit her answers or not answer at all, and said just because the agent communicated her findings and conclusions to attorneys does not make this information privileged.

The same Oct. 6 deposition led to a request by plaintiffs for the court to limit ex parte communications between PacifiCorp and fire survivors. The claims agent had interviewed class members who were unaware of the suit and did not disclose the suit’s existence nor PacifiCorp’s adverse interests in the matter. 

PacifiCorp later agreed to cease unauthorized contact and to inform any survivors who filed claims in the future that the suit was ongoing and, unless they opted out of the litigation, they could not discuss facts relevant to the case without approval from plaintiff attorneys.

The deadline to opt out was Dec. 6 and, in a Dec. 19 court filing, plaintiffs said they reached out directly to 17,857 class members and received 522 requests to be excluded from the lawsuit. A remaining 2,807 potential class members could not be reached directly but still remain entitled to potential damages.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the number of class members.

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