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

PacifiCorp asks court to throw out verdict

PacifiCorp has asked the court to throw out a $90 million verdict in a wildfire lawsuit, claiming the jury’s decision was not supported by the evidence or the law.

In a motion filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court Aug. 11, the company asked the court to overturn the verdict in James et al vs. PacifiCorp, rendered in June after a six-week trial.

They claim the jury’s decision was based on insufficient evidence, and that there was no legal basis to award non-economic or punitive damages.

They further argued there are grounds for a mistrial based on witness statements about deaths resulting from Oregon’s 2020 wildfire season, which were not at issue in the lawsuit.

As of press time plaintiffs had yet to file a response to the motion.

A jury ruled June 12 that PacifiCorp negligently caused the Santiam, 242, Echo Mountain and Obenchain fires when its equipment was damaged during a historic windstorm on Labor Day 2020. 

The jury awarded 17 named plaintiffs $4.4 million in economic damages, $67.5 million in non-economic damages and $18 million in punitive damages. 

A second trial phase is pending to determine individual damages for roughly 5,000 remaining class members. Plaintiffs want Phase II to begin in October, while PacifiCorp has filed a motion to stay trial proceedings until its challenge to the verdict is resolved.

In its Aug. 11 motion, PacifiCorp argued the verdict should be thrown out because there was allegedly insufficient evidence, claiming witness testimony was largely circumstantial.

During the trial plaintiff attorneys conceded there was a lack of direct evidence as PacifiCorp had destroyed or concealed vital documentation and coerced potential witnesses. 

Judge Steffan Alexander examined these claims and found there were grounds to believe PacifiCorp violated evidentiary laws and he allowed details of these violations to be shared with the jury.

PacifiCorp said in its motion that plaintiffs’ argument of guilt by lack of evidence was still a lack of evidence and the jury could not legally find the company liable.

They also said there was evidence of multiple ignition sources unrelated to PacifiCorp equipment, particularly in the Santiam Canyon where the Beachie Creek fire was burning before the storm. This was an additional reason, they argued, to invalidate the verdict.

PacifiCorp also argued noneconomic damages were not allowed under a state law governing wildfire lawsuits. They claimed the law allows only for economic damages for property lost in wildfires, and does not make exceptions in findings of negligence as happened in June.

Additionally the company argued there were no grounds for punitive damages, which may be awarded if a defendant was reckless or created an unreasonable risk of harm. PacifiCorp said its response to the storm followed state law and industry standards, and plaintiffs’ burden of proof for punitive damages was not met.

PacifiCorp has asked Alexander to set aside the jury’s verdict and rule in the company’s favor, or in the alternative to set a new trial. In addition to the nature of the verdict, they said a new trial would be justified by alleged erroneous rulings by Alexander.

They said Alexander should have allowed the company to rebut claims that it destroyed evidence and coerced witnesses, which it was barred from doing as part of court sanctions.

They also claimed the judge should not have allowed evidence that the company failed to mitigate trees near its power lines prior to the fires despite having ample revenue to fund tree mitigation. 

PacifiCorp also said repeated references by witnesses to fatalities from the fires were grounds for a mistrial, as these were not a subject of the lawsuit and likely prejudiced the jury. Five people died from the Santiam Fire, while four others died in unrelated fires elsewhere in Oregon that Labor Day.

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