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

Default judgment requested against PacifiCorp

PacifiCorp may lose a class-action lawsuit without going to trial after the company failed to comply with multiple orders to turn over evidence related to 2020 wildfires in Oregon.

A hearing is set for April 14 in Multnomah County Circuit Court to potentially sanction PacifiCorp for allegedly concealing and destroying evidence of its involvement in the fires.

Plaintiffs in Jeanyne James, et al, vs PacifiCorp have asked for default judgment against the company, which is allowed under Oregon law if a party fails to follow a discovery order. If the court prefers a lesser sanction, plaintiffs requested a finding of fact that PacifiCorp was responsible for the wildfires and wrongfully concealed and destroyed evidence.

“The record shows that PacifiCorp destroyed evidence, withheld documents about the cause and origin of the fires, and repeatedly obstructed deposition testimony, concealing facts about the cause and origin of the fires,” said a motion filed by plaintiffs Feb. 28. 

“The Court has given PacifiCorp several chances to follow the law and the court’s orders. PacifiCorp has chosen to keep hiding evidence.”

The matter is scheduled for trial April 24 before Judge Steffan Alexander.

This is the second request for sanctions after an initial motion was filed Nov. 4, 2022. A hearing was held Dec. 27, 2022, and Alexander said he would rule on sanctions at a later date.

As of press time, Alexander had yet to issue a ruling.

The Feb. 28 motion claims PacifiCorp has spent more than two years concealing evidence linking the company to the wildfires, including a text exchange between its employees from Sept. 8, 2020, when the fires spread. The exchange, between Fire Data Scientist Pavel Grechanuk and Senior Engineer Tyler Jones, was allegedly withheld until received by plaintiffs Feb. 17.

In the texts, Grechanuk says the fires are “right underneath our lines,” to which Jones replied, “lol, ugh, man this is going to get crazy.” Grechanuk went on to say the situation was giving him “the chills” and he hoped it was “another baby shower and not us.”

“The chat is troubling both because of its callousness and as another example of important cause and origin evidence that PacifiCorp concealed,” said plaintiffs in their motion.

Plaintiffs further claim these texts were preserved by accident as PacifiCorp deleted most text messages from the time of the fires unless they were directly flagged for preservation. The texts from Grechanuk and Jones happened to be synced to an email account at the time and were unexpectedly preserved.

Plaintiffs also argue PacifiCorp destroyed physical evidence related to the fires, including the cleanup and disposal of damaged equipment and vegetation. In one instance, a fire was ignited near Gates School after powered equipment was damaged, and allegedly PacifiCorp made no effort to locate or preserve this equipment as evidence.

Four buildings near Gates School were destroyed during the wildfires, while the school itself survived. The buildings were part of a larger facility owned by Upward Bound Camp, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities. The Canyon Weekly reached out to Upward Bound Camp for comment.

In addition to allegedly concealing and destroying evidence, plaintiffs claim PacifiCorp has tried a novel evasion tactic by under-preparing a key witness for deposition.

PacifiCorp claims adjuster Marlow Vass was deposed Jan. 27 and was designated to testify on behalf of the company as a whole. During questioning, Vass said she did not have the knowledge or background to answer numerous questions related to the cause and origins of the fires.

Plaintiffs claim this was the result of a deliberate lack of preparation, arguing Vass had the opportunity to interview numerous PacifiCorp employees including those who responded to the fire damage. Instead, say Plaintiffs, Vass spent three or four hours prepping with a single PacifiCorp attorney.

“PacifiCorp did not prepare Ms. Vass to testify about obvious fire cause and origin issues,” said Plaintiffs.

Vass was at the center of the Nov. 4, 2022, motion for sanctions. When she was deposed Oct. 6, 2022, Vass was allegedly coached by PacifiCorp attorneys to not answer questions related to the cause and origin of the fires.

During the Dec. 27, 2022, hearing, Alexander ordered Vass to testify again and share vital information she knows about the fires. Plaintiffs claim she was deliberately underprepared to comply with the narrow scope of the order.

The suit was filed in 2020 by survivors of the Santiam Fire and has grown to include survivors of the Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires. Plaintiffs total more than 5,000 class members, who are seeking $2.2 billion in damages.

PacifiCorp has denied wrongdoing. As of press time, they had yet to respond to plaintiffs’ new motion for sanctions.

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

Previous Article

Hearing set for industrial farms bill

Next Article

Long-time Canyon supporter passes away

You might be interested in …

Freres Lumber

Freres starts employee vanpools

Freres Engineered Wood, the largest employer in the Santiam Canyon, is setting up a commuter vanpool system to help employees get to its Mill City and Lyons plants from Salem and Albany. Freres has approximately […]