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

PacifiCorp requests new limits on lawsuits

PacifiCorp is attempting to shield itself from lawsuits by proposing a mandatory limited liability agreement for ratepayers, potentially suppressing current and future wildfire claims.

On Oct. 24, PacifiCorp filed a request with the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) to add a clause of limited liability to its user application for electric service.

The request remains pending as PUC looks into whether or not it has the legal authority to adopt limitations on liability. Parties plan to meet over Zoom Dec. 19 to discuss a timetable to gather information and ultimately rule on PacifiCorp’s request. 

The proposed language would only allow customers to seek what PacifiCorp called “actual damages” for physical losses directly resulting from the use of its electrical services. This would exclude losses from the 2020 Labor Day fires and similar disasters caused instead by storm damage to PacifiCorp equipment.

The proposal would also prevent customers from seeking what PacifiCorp called “a-typical damages” such as for pain and suffering, lost wages, punitive damages, and enhanced damages due to negligence.

The company argued these changes are necessary to ensure its financial viability, saying it has struggled to acquire lower-interest loans since its credit rating was downgraded in June. The downgrading, from A to BBB+, was the result of a $90 million jury verdict that month after the company was found liable for the Santiam, Obenchain, Echo Mountain and 242 fires in 2020.

The verdict concluded Phase I of James et al vs. PacifiCorp and Phase II to hear claims from additional fire survivors is scheduled to begin in January in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

In its Oct. 24 filing, PacifiCorp said the proposed changes “would aid in both maintaining and potentially improving its current credit rating for the benefit of customers while retaining the ability for customers to be compensated for actual damages when appropriate.”

The company asked for the proposed changes to take effect Nov. 29 and said all customers would enter into this new agreement by virtue of using its services.

On Nov. 28 the request was suspended by PUC after its staff raised questions about unknown legal implications. 

Among concerns are whether or not state law allows PUC to set limits on utility company liability, and whether or not PCU and similar agencies have considered such limits in the past.

The suspension extended PCU’s approval deadline for the request to Aug. 29, 2024, with a new effective date of Aug. 30, 2024, approved.

In addition to concerns raised by staff, PacifiCorp’s request has caught the attention of consumer watchdogs and attorneys representing plaintiffs in pending wildfire suits.

The Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB) filed a notice of intervention Nov. 9, exercising its right to participate as an advocate for ratepayers. Then on Nov. 27 Oregon Consumer Justice filed their own petition to intervene, arguing the proposed changes would “substantially and directly” impact the consumers it represents.

Their petitions to intervene are expected to be considered during the Dec. 19 conference.

The Canyon Weekly reached out to both of these groups for comment and did not hear back by deadline.

CUB similarly intervened in a June 15 request by PacifiCorp to defer civil judgements until June of 2024 so it could potentially pass on these costs to ratepayers at once rather than incrementally. This matter remains pending before PUC.

And plaintiff attorneys in James et al vs PacifiCorp said the Oct. 24 PUC filing is evidence of PacifiCorp’s alleged indifference toward fire survivors and willingness to dodge accountability. 

In a Nov. 27 court filing, plaintiff lawyers said the request “exacerbated the distress of the survivors of PacifiCorp’s fires across Oregon.” They said they plan to introduce the request as evidence during Phase II trials, as well as other documents associated with PacifiCorp’s responses to the June verdict. 

PacifiCorp has objected to this, saying any information about its financial condition including the pending PUC requests or its credit rating could unfairly prejudice jurors.

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