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

Second trial phase coming after PacifiCorp verdict

A jury has awarded $90 million to named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against PacifiCorp, while a series of shorter trials will determine damages to 5,000 additional class members.

The jury in James et al vs. PacifiCorp found the company liable for five out of six claims June 12 in Multnomah County Circuit Court after a seven-week trial.

The company was accused of negligently causing multiple wildfires throughout Oregon on Labor Day 2020. Plaintiffs successfully argued PacifiCorp failed to manage trees in contact with its power lines and refused to de-energize equipment during high heat and wind conditions.

The jury awarded 17 named plaintiffs roughly $4.4 million in economic damages and $67.5 in non-economic damages. Then on June 14, the company was found liable for punitive damages for outrageous indifference and the jury awarded an additional $18 million, or one quarter of compensatory damages.

PacifiCorp said in a news release it plans to appeal the verdict and is “confident we will prevail.”

The trial also established PacifiCorp’s liability for the entire class, which totals around 5,000 survivors of the Santiam, Obenchain, 242 and Echo Mountain Complex fires. A second trial phase is under way allowing remaining class members to seek individual damages, and plaintiff attorneys hope to finish adjudicating soon.

“We carried the ball to the 10-yard-line and we don’t want to stop now,” said plaintiff attorney Jay Edelson, founder and CEO of Edelson PC. “We want to finish this off because we know people are suffering right now.”

Edelson said this second phase will likely involve a series of group trials with around 17 plaintiffs litigating together like the initial trial. 

These proceedings are expected to last one or two days each, rather than several weeks, because PacifiCorp has already been found responsible for the fires.

Damages in the second phase will also include the one-quarter multiplier for punitive damages set by the jury June 14.

Edelson said class members must reach out directly to plaintiff attorneys to participate in the damages phase, both to join trials and to work out potential nuances in their claims. The firms include Edelson PC, Stoll Berne and Keller Rohrback LLP, while contact information is also available at pacificorpfirelitigation.com.

While the first trial was held in Portland, the damages trials may be more flexible and could take place closer to the regions impacted by the fires. This could happen if the court appoints a special master (often a retired judge) to rule on the cases, though the format of the damages phase is still being finalized in court.

If damages for remaining class members are similar to those awarded June 12 – which were between $3 million and $5.5 million for each plaintiff – the total liability for PacifiCorp could reach more than $25 billion. PacifiCorp has an annual income of $900 million and assets totaling $29 billion, and is owned by multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway with assets worth nearly $1 trillion.

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect damages awarded by the jury.

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