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

Emotional damages take center stage in Phase II trial

The emotional toll of surviving the 2020 wildfires has become the centerpiece of a Phase II trial that began Jan. 8 in James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

During opening arguments Jan 9 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, attorneys for both parties agreed plaintiffs suffered psychological harm, but differed on how much compensation was fair.

Plaintiff attorneys have requested at least $5 million in non-economic damages for each of the nine named plaintiffs and up to $25 million each. They argued the impacts of losing homes, communities, and a cultural identity have left emotional scars that are “ever-present.”

PacifiCorp lawyers said it was unfair to impose a standard amount as each plaintiff’s suffering was different and offered hypothetical examples of $750,000 or $1 million individually. They said the goal should be to award a reasonable amount that will help plaintiffs move on from the fires and readjust their views of the disaster and its impacts.

“The purpose of this non-economic damage award is not to reward the plaintiffs for life…but to provide them with reasonable compensation for the harm they experienced and are continuing to experience,” said PacifiCorp attorney Per Rramfjord.

Phase II comes after the jury in a Phase I trial last year found PacifiCorp negligently caused the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. The 17 plaintiffs in this trial, representing the class, were awarded $94.4 million and Phase II will help determine damages to a remaining class of roughly 5,000 fire survivors.

Three Phase II trials are currently scheduled for January, February and April to determine damages for 21 plaintiffs, who include individuals and businesses. The goal of these proceedings is to test the strength of remaining claims and create a standard by which unresolved claims may be settled.

The current trial, which began with jury selection on Jan. 8, will hear claims from nine survivors of the Santiam, South Obenchain and Echo Mountain Complex fires. A tenth plaintiff was removed from this trial and will be scheduled for their own individual trial as they were the only claimant seeking damages for bodily injury.

Plaintiffs from the Santiam Canyon include Stephen Nielsen, Scott Johnson, Richard Jensen, Debbie Fawcett, Deborah Tank and David Giller Sr.

During opening arguments, plaintiff attorney Nicholas Rosinia said PacifiCorp has refused to take responsibility for the fires and the jury has an opportunity to hold the company accountable.

“You are collectively the conscience of the community,” Rosinia told jurors.

He said economic damages include lost homes and possessions, and extend to the costs of renting cars and motels after fleeing the fires. The nine plaintiffs, each of whom reported a total loss of their primary residence, have requested a combined $26 million in economic damages.

Rosinia said non-economic damages include “things you can’t put a pricetag on” and don’t need to be limited to the trauma during and immediately after the fires. He said some plaintiffs now feel triggered by seeing smoke or a flicker of electricity in their homes, while those who returned to their communities are bombarded by reminders of what happened.

“There will always be a before the fire and an after the fire for them, always,” said Rosinia.

Rramfjord said PacifiCorp doesn’t deny that plaintiffs endured significant trauma and said fire survivors should be allowed to find closure. He said non-economic damages should not go beyond allowing plaintiffs opportunities like seeking out enriching activities, receiving therapy and creating new memories with loved ones.

“It’s not about seeking retribution, it’s not about punishing (PacifiCorp),” he said.

Rramfjord said, when the jury considers non-economic damages, they can use “common sense” to evaluate what steps plaintiffs have taken, or could take, to recover emotionally from the fires. He said the jury could also consider whether or not economic damages already enable plaintiffs to seek emotional healing, such as being able to rebuild their dream home.

Plaintiffs have requested non-economic damages totaling between $45 million and $225 million. Rramfjord said PacifiCorp will give their recommendation for non-economic damages at the end of the trial based on the evidence they believe supports each claim.

Plaintiffs were scheduled to present their case through Thursday and PacifiCorp was scheduled to present its case starting Friday. Closing arguments are scheduled for Jan. 17.

Court proceedings were made accessible by Courtroom View Network (cvn.com).

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