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Pre-trial judgment sought against PacifiCorp

Parties are battling over whether PacifiCorp can argue it didn’t start the 2020 Labor Day fires during upcoming damages trials this winter.

On Nov. 3, plaintiff attorneys in James et al vs. PacifiCorp filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to rule against several arguments PacifiCorp presented related to cause of the fires.

The motion, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, had an attached transcript of a Sept. 8 hearing in which Judge Steffan Alexander described his goals for Phase II of the lawsuit. Alexander said the point of having two phases was to first determine liability, then determine damages, and Phase II was “damages only.”

“I’m not setting a trial to revisit causation in terms of causation to the class based on the jury verdict,” he said in the transcript.

Phase I concluded after a Portland jury found PacifiCorp negligently responsible June 12 for causing the Santiam, Obenchain, Echo Mountain and 242 fires, and awarded $90 million to 17 plaintiffs. Phase II trials are set for Jan. 8 and Feb. 26, 2024, to determine damages for 10 plaintiffs each and the outcomes will set a standard for resolving 5,000 pending class member claims.

A third trial is scheduled for April 22, 2024, to hear claims by Freres Timber Inc. and C.W. Specialty Lumber Inc. as a sample of the businesses among class members.

PacifiCorp argues the verdict did not apply to individual liability but was focused on the whole class, and said it should be able to dispute causation during Phase II.

When the two rounds of 10 plaintiffs filed their individual claims for damages, PacifiCorp responded with affirmative defenses against each claim. The company argued individual plaintiffs had not proven they suffered damages from the fires, nor that PacifiCorp started the fires, and claimed plaintiffs failed to prevent their own losses.

Of the 27 affirmative defenses brought by PacifiCorp, seven were related to causation. Plaintiffs’ Nov. 3 motion asked Alexander to rule against PacifiCorp on these claims. They said Alexander’s statements on Sept. 8 made it clear Phase II was focused only on damages and PacifiCorp’s insistence on relitigating liability has created needless complications and delays.

As of press time, a hearing on the Nov. 3 motion had not been set.

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