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

PacifiCorp asks to continue Jan. 8 Phase II trial

PacifiCorp has asked for a delay of the first damages trial set for next month in a wildfire lawsuit, claiming there is too much unexamined evidence and too many unresolved problems to proceed.

On Dec. 8, PacifiCorp filed a motion in Marion County Circuit Court to continue a Phase II trial set for Jan. 8, 2024, in James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

The trial would focus on claims from 10 plaintiffs out of a class of 5,000 fire survivors, with a similar trial also set for Feb. 26, 2024. The goal of these bellwether trials is to determine the strength of remaining class claims and provide parties more information to reach out-of-court settlements.

The January and February trials were set in a trial management order issued by Judge Steffan Alexander in September, and PacifiCorp said Dec. 8 it has repeatedly objected to this time frame. 

For the January trial, the order set deadlines of Oct. 16 for initial discovery, Nov. 13 for full discovery and Dec. 11 for any follow-up requests for evidence by defendants.

“Trying 10 multi-million-dollar, complex damages claims involving bodily injuries within a little over three months is simply not feasible or consistent with procedural fairness and due process,” according  to the Dec. 8 motion.

As one example, PacifiCorp said it has received more than 3,400 pages of medical records for one claimant alone. PacifiCorp said the thousands more pages it received may be incomplete and could require additional discovery.

PacifiCorp has also taken issue with the high dollar amount sought by the 10 plaintiffs in the Jan. 8 trial, which it said totaled $380 million between economic, noneconomic and punitive damages. It has argued this figure is disproportionate to remaining class claims, particularly considering 17 plaintiffs were already awarded $94.4 million during Phase I of the suit.

A Portland jury found PacifiCorp liable June 12 for causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires in 2020 and awarded $90 million. Judge Steffan Alexander then added $4.4 million Dec. 1 under an Oregon law allowing doubled economic damages from wildfires caused by negligence.

PacifiCorp also argued these claims were overbroad and do not represent the class as a whole. It has asked the court to remove three of the 10 plaintiffs in both groups and replace them with more representative claimants.

Additionally PacifiCorp argued it does not have enough time to file appropriate pre-trial motions and countermotions that may arise prior to the trial.

PacifiCorp said, if the trial proceeds as scheduled, this may place it in an unfair disadvantage. It has asked for the Jan. 8 trial to be continued and a conference scheduled as soon as possible for parties to set a new Phase II timeline.

Plaintiffs opposed the request and in a Dec. 11 court filing accused PacifiCorp of attempting to “undermine” Phase II proceedings. 

They said PacifiCorp has spent more time trying to overturn the jury’s findings from Phase I than preparing for Phase II and now “manufactures discovery mountains from molehills.”

“None of PacifiCorp’s eleventh-hour concerns require any action, let alone continuing the January trial,” read the Dec.11 filing. “PacifiCorp has had a full and fair opportunity to take the discovery it needs in Phase II.”

Plaintiffs attorneys said they are ready to proceed to Phase II trials and that further delay would place undue hardship on fire survivors. They said some class members remain on the edge of financial ruin, while others may not live to see resolution of the case with further delay including one claimant who is 101 years old.

As of press time a hearing to address the motion had not been set. A pre-trial conference to confirm parties are ready to proceed to trial is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2024.

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