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

$42.5 million awarded for 2020 wildfire damages

Jurors have awarded $42.5 million in the second damages trial of James et al vs. PacifiCorp after proceedings that saw some fire survivors singled out for their past emotional traumas.

The verdict was announced shortly after noon Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court following four days of testimony and a day-and-a-half of deliberations.

The award included $12 million in economic damages, $23.25 million in noneconomic damages and $7.3 million in punitive damages for nine survivors of the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Also included among plaintiffs was Upward Bound Camp, a Gates nonprofit serving the differently-abled, which was awarded $4.8 million of the economic damages.

This brings total jury awards in the suit to roughly $217.5 million for 36 plaintiffs. 

With an estimated 5,000 class members remaining, jury awards could total nearly $30 billion.

PacifiCorp was found liable June 12, 2023, during Phase I of the suit, for negligently causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. 

The Santiam Fire alone burned more than 400,000 acres, destroyed approximately 1,500 structures and killed five people.

PacifiCorp staunchly denies wrongdoing and has challenged the 2023 verdict to the Oregon Court of Appeals. It is expected to challenge Tuesday’s result as well.

The Canyon Weekly sent questions to PacifiCorp about the recent trial. A spokesperson responded with a press release stating PacifiCorp “remains committed to settling all reasonable claims for actual damages under Oregon law.”

In the damages trial which began Feb. 26, much of the testimony revolved around emotional damages owed to plaintiffs. Fire survivors testified about the trauma of fleeing for their lives, coming back to find homes, possessions and sometimes pets consumed by the fires, and struggling to move on.

This was also the case in the first damages trial, which saw $85 million awarded to nine plaintiffs on Jan. 23. PacifiCorp’s defense was to argue that trauma naturally heals over time and damages should compensate for how much healing plaintiffs have left to do.

During the second trial PacifiCorp expanded on this argument and zeroed in on the mental health histories of four plaintiffs: Christine Grom, Kelly Davis, Christian Bigness and Diane Turnbull. All four survivors of the Santiam Fire. PacifiCorp’s expert witnesses, psychologists Dr. Michelle Guyton and Dr. Danielle Therson, examined past mental health records and personally interviewed them.

On the stand, Guyton and Therson said in some cases survivors endured depression and anxiety throughout their adult lives, while others had acute trauma from other circumstances.

The psychologists also testified plaintiffs saw improvements in mental health during the months or even days after the fires and continued to improve.

This was contrary to the testimony of individuals who described recurring nightmares, difficulty feeling optimistic, and a deep and abiding sense of loss.

During closing arguments March 1, PacifiCorp attorney Alison Plessman said the jury should not award damages if plaintiffs could not prove that trauma after the fire originated from the fire.

“You can’t say the fire caused this particular emotional distress or this specific symptom,” Plessman said. “…[PacifiCorp] can be held liable for the damage caused by the fires at issue and nothing else.”

Plaintiff attorney Nicholas Rosinia said PacifiCorp was “attacking [the] distress” of fire survivors and trying to “demean and belittle” their suffering. He told jurors this was further proof PacifiCorp refused to accept responsibility for the fires.

“It is not these peoples’ fault that they brought with them a past trauma,” said Rosinia.

The jury awarded far more in noneconomic damages than the minimum $2.7 million proposed by PacifiCorp, and less than half the minimum of $45 million proposed by plaintiffs. 

The jury awarded varying individual amounts between $1.75 and $3.5 million based on a noneconomic damages assessment by PacifiCorp.

Plaintiff attorney Cody Berne said it was “very hard to know what a jury’s thinking” and he could not say if PacifiCorp’s tactic was successful. He did say the $42.5 million total award was a sign the jury wanted to hold PacifiCorp accountable.

“This is still a great outcome and a great result,” said Berne.

Berne said his team is hoping to schedule additional damages trials in the coming weeks. He noted the next trial is April 22 and the time until then could be spent resolving claims.

“We know it is extremely important to everyone that they have an opportunity to have their voice heard, if that’s what their case requires, and we will continue to advocate to get as many trials scheduled as soon as the court will allow,” he said. After the April 22 trial parties are expected to enter into mediation to attempt to resolve outstanding claims.

When asked what settlement amount might satisfy plaintiffs, Berne noted PacifiCorp paid its private shareholders $3 billion in the five years prior to 2020 that it could have spent on wildfire prevention.

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

Previous Article

County extends mental health outreach

Next Article

North Fork trail gets huge boost – State committee supports grant for Little North Santiam area

You might be interested in …

Hospital team awarded $50,000 grant by Linn County

Linn County has awarded a $50,000 grant to Santiam Hospital & Clinics to assist the hospital’s service integration teams in Scio and the Santiam Canyon. The funds, hospital integrated health and outreach officials say, will […]