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

Attorneys battling over Phase II of PacifiCorp trial

Parties are clashing over how to proceed with the damages phase of a wildfire lawsuit against PacifiCorp after the company rejected a plan to use special masters to streamline claims.

In an Aug. 7 filing in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the company asserted its right to trial by jury to resolve an estimated 5,000 pending claims in James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

According to plaintiff attorneys, this means a protracted claims process that could last a decade. According to PacifiCorp, this will result in additional incentive for class members to settle or enter mediation. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 8 before Judge Steffan Alexander to consider the matter.

A Portland jury found PacifiCorp liable in June for causing the Santiam, Obenchain, Echo Mountain and 242 fires, and awarded 17 named plaintiffs $90 million. The jury determined the fires were a direct result of PacifiCorp mismanaging its system during historic heat and wind events on Labor Day 2020. Prior to trial, Alexander found PacifiCorp had violated evidentiary procedures by destroying or attempting to conceal evidence. 

To sanction defendants, he allowed details of these violations to be shared with the jury.

PacifiCorp continues to deny wrongdoing and said it will appeal the verdict. As of press time, no appeal had been filed.

A second phase of the trial is pending to determine individual damages to the remaining 5,000 class members. Plaintiffs had proposed using special masters to hear claims. 

A special master is often a retired judge who would be allowed to resolve claims in a less-formal fashion than a trial, potentially near where plaintiffs live.

With PacifiCorp asserting its right to trial by jury, claims must be heard in court according to normal trial procedures, likely in Multnomah County.

Plaintiff attorneys said in court filings “the best process available under the circumstances” would be a series of trials that would resolve up to 75 claims every 60 days. This would take 11 years to address all 5,000 claims without interruptions, and plaintiffs have asked Alexander to initiate this process starting in October.

PacifiCorp opposes this plan and proposed bellwether trials where a subsection of the remaining class members would be chosen at random and their claims heard together. PacifiCorp said the outcomes of these trials would likely cause class members to rethink the strength of their own claims, which would “drive mediation and settlement.”

PacifiCorp proposed starting bellwether trials in January 2024, then non-binding mediation that June for all claims not yet resolved through trial or settlement. This timeline may not hold as PacifiCorp told the court it also plans to request a delay of all trial proceedings until its yet-to-be-filed appeal and other outstanding matters are resolved.

Plaintiffs argued a bellwether trial is unnecessary because the initial trial determined liability for the entire class and included survivors from all four fires. They said PacifiCorp is trying to relitigate the case when the only issue at hand is whether or not remaining class members are owed specific damages.

PacifiCorp said bellwether trials were “the best path forward” and the 75/60 trial plan infringes on the right to timely adjudication for both the defendant and class members. 

The company also said plaintiffs’ plan is complicated by the fact that PacifiCorp is beleaguered by other lawsuits and its attorneys may have conflicting court proceedings through at least 2024.

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

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