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

Jury begins deliberations in PacifiCorp class-action

Jury deliberations began Thursday in a $2.2 billion class-action lawsuit against PacifiCorp in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Seventeen named plaintiffs in James et al vs. PacifiCorp represent 5,000 survivors of Oregon wildfires that raged on Labor Day 2020.

They are seeking $1.2 billion in economic damages, $1 billion in non-economic damages and unspecified punitive damages.

Jurors must decide if PacifiCorp negligently caused the fires by choosing to not de-energize its equipment amid severe heat and wind conditions. PacifiCorp has defended its actions and denied wrongdoing.

Closing arguments were held June 7 before Judge Steffan Alexander. The following account focuses primarily on the Santiam Fire.

Plaintiff attorneys said PacifiCorp’s negligence could be seen in its finances leading up to the fires. 

Between 2015 and 2019 the company received $25.7 billion in revenue and paid $3 billion in shareholders dividends. During the same timeframe, it spent $100 million to manage trees threatening its equipment and allegedly told employees it could not afford more.

This was amid calls by Oregon regulators for the company to resolve a “disturbing” number of trees in contact with live power equipment throughout the state.

Plaintiff attorney Nicholas Rosnia said PacifiCorp actively chose to ignore a serious threat it could have prevented, and failed in its obligation to protect local communities.

“They took no action at all, and the result (was) predictable as much as it was preventable,” he said.

In regard to the Santiam Fire, Rosinia told jurors they were allowed to find PacifiCorp liable even if power equipment was not the only cause.

Multiple new fires sparked in the Santiam Canyon Sept. 7, 2020, as the existing Beachie Creek Fire spread into the region from the east. Witnesses testified PacifiCorp equipment caused these new fires, and Rosinia said Oregon allows a defendant to be found liable even if they are only partly responsible for causing harm.

Defense attorney Doug Dixon focused on this nuance and argued the preexisting Beachie Creek Fire was reason enough for PacifiCorp to be exonerated.

Dixon said plaintiffs offered no proof that the fires in the Santiam Canyon on Labor Day were caused by any source other than the Beachie Creek Fire. He told jurors, if PacifiCorp was not responsible for these fires, then it was not responsible for harm to all class members and therefore not liable for harm to any class members.

“If plaintiffs cannot show that Pacific Power caused harm to the entire class, that is reason enough for you to check the box ‘No’ on your verdict form,” said Dixon.

He also repudiated claims by plaintiffs that hundreds of firefighters were forced to evacuate the region after power lines allegedly sparked fires at Gates School and Fishermen’s Bend. Dixon said first responders willingly left because they did not have resources to battle the fire, and their absence from the area allowed flames to spread.

He said everyone’s heart goes out to fire survivors, but there was no ignoring the cause and effect of the firefighters’ departure.

Dixon also addressed claims that PacifiCorp willfully destroyed evidence, including the disposal of damaged electrical equipment and deletion of internal communications. He said there was no willful action taken to conceal evidence and plaintiffs were given access to all evidence in PacifiCorp’s possession.

During plaintiffs’ rebuttal, Rosinia said defendants’ arguments reinforced the idea PacifiCorp is an unapologetic corporation that needs to be held accountable.

“Their view is they did everything right and they wouldn’t do anything different ever again,” He said.
“…There’s no accountability, no remorse, no responsibility at all.”

Rosinia said PacifiCorp’s wildfire preparedness plan listed class members’ communities as low-priority, so in following its own procedures it disregarded potential harm to plaintiffs. He said defendants shouldn’t get a pass on committing negligence just because it was supported by company policy.

“They don’t get to define the scope of their own negligence,” he said.  “…Nothing is more negligent than quite literally doing nothing.”

Access to court proceedings was provided through Courtroom View Network (cvn.com).

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

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