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

PacifiCorp damages trial delayed by winter storm

The conclusion of a damages trial in James et al vs. PacifiCorp has been delayed after the courthouse was closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to weather.

The trial, which began Jan. 8 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, had been proceeding on schedule with plaintiffs resting their case Jan. 11 and defendants resting their case Jan. 12.

Closing arguments were expected Tuesday and jury deliberations were set to begin Wednesday, but the courthouse was closed both days amid icy conditions.

It was unclear as of press time whether or not the trial would resume Thursday. Readers can check canyonweekly.com for any updates.

Phase I of the lawsuit concluded last year after a jury found PacifiCorp negligently caused the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Labor Day 2020. 

So far $94.4 million has been awarded to 17 plaintiffs out of a class of roughly 5,000 fire survivors, and Phase II is under way to determine damages to the rest of the class.

The Jan. 8 trial featured claims from nine fire survivors, including six individuals from the Santiam Canyon. The outcome of this and two similar trials set for Feb. 26 and April 22 will help set a standard for potentially settling remaining claims.

During the current trial plaintiffs presented their case over three days, including testimony from the nine fire survivors as well as property appraisers and forestry consultants. Plaintiffs are seeking $26 million in economic damages and at least $45 million in non-economic damages.

Emotional damages have been the primary focus of the trial and fire survivors told of dramatic personal losses and lives upended.

Richard Jensen described how he and his wife “had to start over from a toothbrush” after their fifth-wheel trailer burned at Fisherman’s Bend campground in Mill City. Though he attempted to hitch up the trailer, which had been their retirement home, Jensen said he was forced to leave as a 20-foot wall of fire beared down on him.

Jensen said those flames occupy his thoughts and his nightmares, as well as the weight of leaving everything behind. He said he’s seeing a therapist and is in a support group, but still struggles to do things he used to enjoy like run marathons, collect NFL memorabilia and volunteer with search and rescue.

“I cannot get peace with that 20-foot wall of fire that I saw coming that night,” said Jensen. “ … I found something that has completely terrified me.”

The jury also heard from Scott Johnson, who testified that he and his wife jumped down a 25-foot cliff to reach the North Santiam River as fire encircled their house in Gates. Johnson became tangled in briars before making it to the river, and said he reached the freezing water in time to watch fire consume their home of 20 years.

“I was basically a trapped animal, it felt like,” said Johnson. “‘We’re just going to die’ is what you think when you’re in that situation, and that’s where we were.”

The house was a total loss, and with it music recordings and instruments Johnson had collected in his 50 years as a musician including recent recordings for a new album. Johnson said his “idyllic” retreat in the wilderness was gone “in the blink of an eye” and he has since felt the impacts of the fire every day.

Debbie Fawcett told the jury the fire “shattered” her as a person and said her home in Gates that once felt like a “safe haven” for herself and others now feels like “a wasteland.” This not only challenged her personally but professionally, she said.  She is a school counselor.

“When your tank is empty and you can’t figure out how to be there for yourself, it makes it very hard to be there for other people,” she said.

Fawcett began seeing a therapist but struggled and eventually stopped because she felt like “all the talking in the world is not going to fix it.” She said she wants to feel like herself again and not let the fire define who she is, but between the pain of what happened and the presence of constant reminders she said she is unsure how.

PacifiCorp’s case lasted roughly one hour on Jan. 12 and depended solely on testimony from clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Guyton.

Guyton testified trauma survivors tend to experience less-intense symptoms over time, particularly after the first few months, and that intensity of trauma does not indicate intensity of symptoms. She said humans are “resilient” and naturally built to survive trauma, and said even those who do not seek therapy will instinctively find ways to cope and move on.

When questioned by plaintiff attorneys, Guiton said she has not personally been involved in studies related to trauma survival and said her testimony was based on others’ research. She also said she had not examined any of the plaintiffs in this case and was not offering conclusions as to their specific trauma symptoms or degrees of recovery.

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

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