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

PacifiCorp blames employees for fire damages in trial

PacifiCorp attorneys shifted blame to company employees during opening arguments in a damages trial Tuesday over the 2020 Labor Day fires.

The trial began Monday in Multnomah County Circuit Court in James et al vs. PacifiCorp, with 10 claimants seeking damages to help determine potential payouts to a class of roughly 5,000.

Since last year $175 million has been awarded to 26 class members, and total damages could reach billions of dollars.

Plaintiff attorney Nicholas Rosinia said Tuesday PacifiCorp has refused to accept responsibility for the fires and jurors had an opportunity to hold the company accountable. This echoed arguments he gave in a prior damages trial that began Jan. 8.

PacifiCorp attorney Alison Plessman deviated from past trials and argued plaintiff attorneys were attempting to confuse the jury by unfairly targeting the company itself. She said it was not PacifiCorp but rather “its employees’ decision not to turn off the power in advance of the windstorms on Labor Day 2020.”

“This trial is not about punishing Pacific Power for deciding to keep the lights on or for any other reason,” said Plessman. PacifiCorp operates as Pacific Power in Oregon.

During a trial last year PacifiCorp attorneys staunchly defended the company’s decision not to de-energize power lines during high heat and wind conditions. They argued this conformed with industry best practices, state laws and PacifiCorp’s own internal policies. Pacific Power CEO Stefan Bird personally defended the decision.

At the close of that trial, on June 12, 2023, PacifiCorp was found negligently liable for causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires.

The Canyon Weekly reached out to PacifiCorp to clarify if it is the company’s position that its employees were at fault for the fires. A spokesperson did not respond by press time.

Plaintiff attorneys will have their first opportunity to directly rebut Plessman’s assertions during closing arguments scheduled for Friday. Coverage of the proceedings and possible verdict can be found at canyonweekly.com.

Testimony began following opening arguments and started with Gates resident Christine Grom. She was one of four Santiam Canyon residents having their claims heard, as was Gates-based Upward Bound Camp.

Grom described how they had to abandon her dream home – a rustic-yet-modern cabin on a property so idyllic she almost bought it sight-unseen – and all their possessions. As they entered the procession of evacuees on Highway 22, which had fires raging on both sides, she recalled “begging God not to let me die.”

Grom’s father, who lived with his wife in a fifth-wheel trailer on Grom’s property, suffered a stroke during evacuations. He died in 2022. Grom was prevented from testifying about this due to a pre-trial order by Judge Steffan Alexander, who said the shocking nature of the claim would unduly prejudice the jury.

Grom did testify about feeling frustrated and helpless after evacuations. She said she put on a brave face as dad’s tough tomboy, when inside she’s “literally broken”. 

“[I’d think] ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t. I’ll figure it out. I’m the tough one. I can do this,’” said Grom. “But I can’t. I can’t do it. It hurts every day.”

Emotional impact is expected to be the centerpiece of the current trial, as PacifiCorp again said it would not contest economic damages supported by the evidence.

During the Jan. 8 trial PacifiCorp’s only defense witness was a clinical psychologist who testified for less than an hour about the nature of recovering from traumatic events. 

According to a trial schedule filed with the court Feb. 21, PacifiCorp again anticipated a brief defense and plans to present its case Thursday afternoon, possibly into Friday morning.

Access to court proceedings was provided through Courtroom View Network (cvn.com).

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