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

Jury awards $84.2 million to nine fire survivors

Nine survivors of the 2020 Labor Day fires have been awarded $84.2 million after a Portland jury returned a verdict in a Phase II damages trial in James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

On Jan. 23 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, 12 jurors awarded $6.3 million in economic damages and $56 million in non-economic damages following four days of testimony.

Phase I last year set punitive damages at 25 percent, as well as double economic damages for PacifiCorp’s recklessness and negligence, bringing the total to $84.2 million.

A verdict had been expected the week before however the courthouse was closed Jan. 16 – 19 due to icy weather. Judge Steffan Alexander thanked jurors Jan. 23 for remaining committed to their duty despite the unexpected extension of proceedings.

Plaintiff attorney Nicholas Rosinia, with Edelson PC, said in a statement they were grateful to the jury for holding PacifiCorp accountable and for the “strength and resilience of our clients.”

PacifiCorp said in a press release they plan to appeal the verdict and will continue pursuing “reasonable” settlement offers. The company also said the jury’s award will be around $78.9 million after adjustments such as the deduction of insurance payouts to fire survivors from insurers who settled with PacifiCorp last year.

Additional Phase II trials are scheduled for Feb. 26 and April 22 to help set a standard by which the claims of roughly 5,000 class members can be settled. The class includes survivors of the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires, which PacifiCorp was found negligently responsible for during Phase I last year.

An initial group of 17 plaintiffs were awarded $92.4 million during Phase I. If the totals of the two verdicts were averaged out by person, potential jury awards to the remaining class could be more than $30 billion.

Non-economic damages were the main focus of the most recent trial, which started Jan. 8. PacifiCorp said in opening arguments it would not contest economic damages that were supported by the evidence.

During closing arguments Jan. 22, Rosinia said plaintiffs had been fundamentally changed by the fires and were “plagued by nightmares, cynical, struggling to enjoy life.” He replayed emotional testimony including from Gates resident Scott Johnson, who said the experience was “devastating in every single way you can possibly imagine.”

Rosinia asked the jury to award at least $5 million each just for the trauma of enduring the fires, plus damages the jury believed were justified by plaintiffs’ suffering, capped at $25 million each.

PacifiCorp attorney Per Ramfjord said non-economic damages should be based on plaintiffs’ individual experiences and not “an emotional appeal to punish (PacifiCorp).” He proposed $11.4 million total, ranging between $500,000 and $2 million each, saying this would “change each plaintiff’s lives” and “help them adapt and move forward.”

The jury sided with plaintiffs and awarded non-economic damages of $6 million each to six of the nine fire survivors. Gates resident Steve Nielsen was awarded $4.5 million, while Eagle Point resident Cory Staniforth was awarded $7 million.

Johnson, who jumped off a cliff into the North Santiam River with his wife to escape the Santiam Fire, was awarded $8.5 million in non-economic damages.

The upcoming Feb. 26 trial is expected to feature claims from 10 class members and is scheduled through March 1. The April 22 trial will feature claims by Freres Timber and C.W. Specialty Lumber and is scheduled through April 30.

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

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