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

$84.2 million verdict upheld in PacifiCorp suit

A recent $84.2 million verdict has been upheld in a wildfire lawsuit against PacifiCorp as the company similarly challenges a newer $42.4 million judgment in the case.

On March 25, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander signed an order denying PacifiCorp’s challenge to a Jan. 23 verdict in James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

The company had argued in a Feb. 12 motion the jury’s decision was not based on the evidence and should be set aside. It also argued a new trial was warranted because its due process rights were allegedly violated, and that the lower court did not have jurisdiction as an appeal in the case was pending.

Alexander’s March 25 order cited plaintiffs’ opposition, in which they argued there was more than enough evidence presented to jurors to justify the verdict. Plaintiffs also said PacifiCorp’s rights were preserved during the trial, even if some decisions by plaintiffs or the court placed the company at a disadvantage.

Alexander also cited a Dec. 1, 2023, ruling in which he similarly upheld a $94.7 million verdict from an initial trial held in spring of 2023.

This Phase I verdict found PacifiCorp liable for negligently causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. 

Phase II is under way to determine potential damages to a class of roughly 5,000 fire survivors, which included the Jan. 23 verdict and a March 5 verdict of $42.4 million.

PacifiCorp challenged this latest verdict in a new filing March 29, again arguing claims against the company had not been proven. 

PacifiCorp also argued the two-phase structure of the case allegedly violated its rights against double jeopardy, as multiple juries were being asked to rule in the same case.

A response from plaintiffs had not been filed as of press time.

Alexander also ruled on other outstanding motions March 25, including partial approval of a common benefit fee for plaintiff attorneys.

Attorneys requested the fee Aug. 4, 2023, arguing their work on the Phase I trial opened doors for additional judgments and settlements. They requested a 20 percent fee from all litigants who fit the definition of the class and who received legal damages from PacifiCorp for the fires, including those who had opted out of the James lawsuit.

Alexander set the fee at 10 percent and excluded opt-out plaintiffs, as well as claimants who had reached a previous agreement on fees with James attorneys.

Alexander additionally ruled on PacifiCorp’s request to offset economic damages in the Jan. 23 verdict, approving a deduction of $4.4 million. This brought total damages from the verdict to $79.8 million, and total damages for the case to $216.8 million.

Alexander previously ruled on this issue Dec. 1, 2023, and said PacifiCorp could reduce economic damages to individual plaintiffs by the amounts these plaintiffs received in insurance payments. This was due to PacifiCorp settling claims with a class of insurance companies in May of 2023 for $55 million, which under Oregon law settled related claims on behalf of the insured parties.

While these motions have been resolved, a hearing was scheduled for April 5, to argue a March 15 motion by plaintiffs accusing PacifiCorp of improper juror contact. Plaintiffs said they had learned of at least two contacts between jurors and PacifiCorp consultants in which jurors were asked about their impressions of the company’s defense strategies and witnesses.

On March 18 in an opposition filing, PacifiCorp admitted to contacting several jurors over the course of the three trials and argued its actions were within the law. PacifiCorp said it was nevertheless pausing juror contact while plaintiffs’ concerns were being addressed.

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