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

Court rulings weaken PacifiCorp’s defense in suit

Both state and local judges have dealt blows to PacifiCorp’s defenses in a class action wildfire lawsuit as the case proceeds to the first in a series of Phase II trials on Monday, Jan. 8.

On Dec. 29, 2023, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the right of plaintiffs to seek emotional damages absent physical harm when a defendant is obligated to protect the plaintiff’s interests.

And on Tuesday, Jan. 2, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander barred PacifiCorp from arguing it did not cause the fires at issue or that some other source was to blame.

Emotional damages and causation were tentpoles of recent court filings by PacifiCorp as parties sparred over what arguments and evidence could be presented during Phase II trials.

The company had argued non-economic damages without substantial physical losses should be barred under Oregon’s “Physical Impact Rule.” They also said the jury has a right to hear alternative theories of how the fires began and that denying these arguments would be unfair and prejudicial.

A representative for the company did not return a request for comment on these recent rulings or the upcoming trial prior to press time.

PacifiCorp was found liable by a Portland jury June 12, 2023, for negligently causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020.

A second phase of the trial is under way to determine individual damages for roughly 5,000 survivors of the four fires.

During the Phase I trial, multiple plaintiffs testified about the emotional harm caused by losing homes and personal belongings, and while fleeing the fires. 

The jury was told they could consider this harm when calculating non-economic damages, which totaled $67.5 million out of a $90 million total verdict.

PacifiCorp argued in a Dec. 13, 2023, motion the jury ignored the Physical Impact Rule, a court precedent which allows emotional damages only for physical losses, with limited exceptions. PacifiCorp said the rule should apply in Phase II and requested a ban on evidence of purely-emotional harm such as anxiety experienced while fleeing the fires or due to lost income.

The Physical Impact Rule was revisited by the Oregon Supreme Court last month when it ruled on Moody vs. Oregon Community Credit Union. At issue was whether or not the plaintiff could seek emotional damages for the alleged wrongful denial of a life insurance claim.

Justices ruled Dec. 29 a plaintiff can seek damages for purely-emotional harm if the defendant failed a legal obligation to protect plaintiff’s interests. 

James plaintiffs filed a notice in Multnomah County the same day stating the Moody decision reaffirms that class members are entitled to emotional damages due to Pacificorp’s negligence. 

Plaintiffs received another win Jan. 2 when Alexander approved their request to prohibit PacifiCorp from presenting evidence that it did not cause the fires. 

PacifiCorp has repeatedly denied responsibility for the fires and argued Phase II juries are entitled to hear alternative potential causes such as climate change and forest management. 

Alexander’s ruling reaffirmed his earlier decisions that causation was settled in Phase I and the scope of Phase II is only to determine damages. Alexander did allow PacifiCorp to present arguments and evidence that the fires may not have caused the specific losses claimed by plaintiffs.

Alexander specifically barred PacifiCorp from arguing the Santiam Fire was a continuation of the lightning-caused Beachie Creek Fire, which entered the canyon the same day. He did allow PacifiCorp to present evidence of whether or not plaintiffs evacuated due to the Beachie Creek Fire and their experience if they did so.

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