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

PacifiCorp suit partially dismissed as trial approaches

A class action lawsuit against PacifiCorp by survivors of multiple 2020 wildfires has been partially dismissed, with remaining claims headed to trial April 24.

On Jan. 10, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander granted summary judgment in Jeanyne James, et al, vs PacifiCorp, ruling in defendant’s favor on one count of alleged negligence and a request for a safety injunction.

Six causes for damages remain, with plaintiffs seeking $2.2 billion on behalf of roughly 5,000 survivors of the Santiam Canyon, Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires. PacifiCorp is accused of negligently causing or intensifying the fires, a claim the company strongly denies.

Alexander ruled in response to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by PacifiCorp Oct. 27, 2022. PacifiCorp sought rulings in its favor on six out of of seven causes of action, arguing plaintiffs had failed to support claims of negligence, gross negligence, private nuisance, public nuisance and trespassing, and failed to demonstrate why the court should grant an injunction compelling PacifiCorp to take additional steps to mitigate fire risks.

Alexander rejected most of the defendant’s arguments, but granted a ruling on the issue of negligence per se, which describes an act that negligently violates a specific law. 

Plaintiffs claimed PacifiCorp negligently violated Oregon laws requiring public utilities to safely maintain and operate their equipment. PacifiCorp said the laws in question do not specifically define safety standards and determining whether or not they were negligently violated would require an interpretation of the laws, which is not allowed in a claim of negligence per se.

Separate counts of common law negligence, which defines a failure to exercise a reasonable level of care, and gross negligence, which defines an extreme departure from reasonable levels of care, were allowed to remain.

Alexander also ruled in favor of defendants regarding a request by plaintiffs for an injunction compelling PacifiCorp to adopt technologies and techniques that have been proven effective in preventing wildfires, such as burying transmission lines and de-energizing lines during wildfire conditions. Plaintiffs argued it was acceptable in lawsuits to request injunctions that prevent further injury, but PacifiCorp argued the injunction was a separate matter from the allegations in the lawsuit, as the fires in question are no longer a threat and court intervention cannot prevent further harm.

The judge determined the remaining claims challenged by PacifiCorp, including private nuisance (harm to private individuals), public nuisance (harm to the public) and trespass (encroaching on the rights of property owners) should be decided by a jury. A claim of inverse condemnation, which accuses PacifiCorp of taking private land for its utility infrastructure and causing damage to that land, was not challenged.

Parties are due back in court Feb. 17 for a pre-trial hearing.

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

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