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

PacifiCorp admits to out-of-court juror contact

PacifiCorp has admitted to contacting jurors outside of court in a lawsuit over the 2020 Labor Day fires after plaintiff attorneys requested an order barring the company from further juror outreach.

On March 18, PacifiCorp said in court filings in James et al vs. PacifiCorp it had “interviewed several jurors” after an initial trial in 2023 and after a recent damages trial that began Feb. 26.

In the 2023 trial, held in Multnomah County Circuit Court, PacifiCorp was found liable for negligently causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires.

The Feb. 26 trial was part of proceedings to determine damages to a class of roughly 5,000 individuals. An initial damages trial began Jan. 8 and a third is scheduled for April 22.

In the March 18 filing PacifiCorp admitted it had reached out to jurors after each trial for the purpose of collecting feedback on the company’s defense strategies. It also said it “does not intend to use any of the information obtained [during juror contacts] to overturn any verdict.”

The filings also said outreach has been suspended after the plaintiff attorneys raised concerns over the matter directly with defense counsel March 14.

PacifiCorp’s trial defenses have ranged from blaming forest management policies and climate change to blaming employees. Despite the defenses, jurors awarded $217.5 million in combined damages to 36 plaintiffs, representing the potential for billions of dollars in total damages to the class.

Plaintiff attorneyes filed a motion March 15 to bar further juror communications. The motion also requested that PacifiCorp attorneys make sworn statements detailing all juror contacts to date, and provide all documents and communications resulting from these contacts.

According to plaintiffs’ motion, on June 21, 2023 – nine days after the verdict in the initial trial – a PacifiCorp consultant messaged a juror on LinkedIn. The consultant did not describe their relationship with PacifiCorp or mention the James case by name. They said they were “asked by the trial team to reach out to the jurors to see if they’d agree to a short interview.”

On March 14, a juror from the Feb. 26 trial contacted plaintiff attorneys and said a PacifiCorp consultant had called them directly asking about the trial, according to the motion. The juror said they were asked whether or not PacifiCorp’s arguments were “aggressive,” about their impressions of the defense witnesses, and how the jury reached decisions on damages.

During this trial PacifiCorp attorneys targeted the mental health histories of specific plaintiffs, arguing the company should not be liable for emotional harm that predated the fires. Plaintiffs accused PacifiCorp in closing arguments of weaponizing fire survivors’ past traumas.

Plaintiffs motion cited Oregon’s Uniform Trial Court Rules, which state attorneys “must not initiate contact with any juror concerning any case which that juror was sworn to try.” Exceptions are allowed if jurors need to be questioned for potential procedural violations, but only in court and only with opposing counsel present.

PacifiCorp’s filing claims this rule does not explicitly prohibit the collecting of juror feedback. The company also argued the rule only applies during trial procedures and cannot be applied outside of a trial.

Plaintiffs’ motion cited Oregon’s Rules of Professional Conduct which states, under specific conditions, “A lawyer shall not…communicate with a juror…after discharge of the jury.” Conditions include when communication is prohibited by a court order. PacifiCorp said no such order was issued in this case.

Judge Steffan Alexander admonished jurors at the conclusion of each trial to not discuss deliberations with non-jurors. PacifiCorp argued Alexander prefaced the statement by saying jurors should expect people to ask questions about their experience, thus allegedly justifying the company’s actions.

The March 15 motion said PacifiCorp’s juror contacts were “a clear violation” of the rules and of Alexander’s admonitions. It asked Alexander to grant the motion because it was unclear “how pervasive defendants’ misconduct has been” and how it may have tainted the case.

“Defendants appear to have repeatedly violated Oregon law that prohibits them from initiating contact with jurors,” said the motion. 

PacifiCorp’s opposition accused plaintiffs of “misreading and misunderstanding” the law and argued the motion should be denied. They also argued plaintiffs attorneys may have initiated juror contact to collect evidence for their motion, and that any finding against PacifiCorp should also apply to plaintiffs’ conduct.

“PacifiCorp’s contact with former jurors – after the conclusion of trial proceedings – to understand how its attorneys can improve at trial did not violate any rule or statute or instruction,” according to  the March 18 filing.

The Canyon Weekly reached out to PacifiCorp and a statement from the company echoed the claims in the opposition filing.

“PacifiCorp attorneys’ outreach to jurors requesting input and feedback after the James trial is consistent with Oregon law and within the confines of what was permitted in this case,” they said.

“PacifiCorp has settled hundreds of claims related to the 2020 wildfires to date and considers this filing by plaintiffs’ attorneys without merit, and part of an ongoing, coordinated pressure campaign against the company.”

Complaints of misconduct have included concerns raised by plaintiffs on Nov. 10, 2023, accusing PacifiCorp of conducting polls of residents within the Portland metro area about wildfires and wildfire preparedness. Plaintiffs demanded copies of the poll results and in a stipulated agreement PacifiCorp said it would not poll residents prior to April 30, 2024, when the third damages trial is expected to conclude.

PacifiCorp was also accused of contacting fire survivors prior to the 2023 trial to learn their impressions about the causes of the fires. These class members were unaware of the suit and PacifiCorp investigators did not disclose the existence of pending litigation or the company’s interests in the matter.

Other issues raised include efforts by PacifiCorp to destroy or withhold records and testimony regarding its knowledge of liability for the fires and the extent of its negligence, including deleting emails and Skype messages, ignoring discovery orders for months or years, and coaching witnesses during depositions.

The evidentiary violations were so thoroughly documented by the plaintiffs that Alexander allowed the company’s misconduct to be presented during the 2023 trial as a sanction against PacifiCorp.

Alexander’s decisions on this matter are among the alleged judicial errors PacifiCorp has raised with the Oregon Court of Appeals to potentially overturn the 2023 verdict.

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