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

Fire fatality lawsuits prepping for summer trials

A pair of wrongful death lawsuits over the Santiam Fire are headed toward possible trials this summer, with parties deposing key witnesses and assembling trial teams.

The survivors of Peggy Mosso, 71, and grandson Wyatt Tofte, 13, and of Cathy Cook, 71, and son Justin Cook, 41, may go to trial in July and August, respectively.

Rather than receive specific trial dates, parties were given dates to call Multnomah County Circuit Court and confirm if there is upcoming availability for a trial on the court calendar. The Mosso family is to call on July 3 and the Cook family on Aug. 2. Both trials are each expected to last 10 days.

Both families sued PacifiCorp and local first responders in 2021 for the deaths of the four individuals, who all lived on North Fork Road SE near Lyons. They died during evacuations over the Santiam Fire, which sparked during high heat and wind conditions Sept. 7, 2020.          

Plaintiffs claim PacifiCorp negligently caused the fire by choosing to not de-energize its power equipment during the storm. They further claim first responders with Marion County, Stayton Fire District and METCOM failed to properly evacuate residents.

Mossos seeking $540 million and the Cooks seeking $240 million.

Consumers Power, a Philomath-based utility, had also been accused of sparking the fires. On April 10 plaintiffs in both cases voluntarily dismissed claims against the company.

In the leadup to possible trials, plaintiffs have issued subpoenas to take video depositions of former PacifiCorp employees who led the company’s response to the 2020 Labor Day fires.

David Lucas, former vice president of operations, is scheduled to be deposed May 8 in Texas, and Jeff Bolton, former emergency manager, is scheduled to be deposed May 15 in Washington. Lucas left in 2021 and Bolton left in 2023, according to court records.

PacifiCorp is also making its own trial preparations, assembling a team of attorneys who were involved in trials for a parallel class action lawsuit, James et al vs. PacifiCorp. 

Doug Dixon and Alison Plessman, of law firm Hueston Hennigan, were readmitted to the Mosso and Cook cases April 16 and 22, respectively, after originally being admitted in 2022. Both attorneys took part in three separate trials in James from April of 2023 to this March, including the delivery of opening and closing arguments.

Other PacifiCorp attorneys from James admitted to the Mosso and Cook suits include Rajan Trehan of Hueston Hennigan on April 22 and Samantha Sondag Stoel Rives LLP on April 24.

While the trial is pending, parties are waiting on a decision by Judge Beth Allen on whether or not to render summary judgment against PacifiCorp. 

On Feb. 1, they filed motions for summary judgment arguing, because PacifiCorp was found liable in James, it was appropriate to find the company summarily liable in their cases. 

PacifiCorp opposed the motions in Feb. 26 filings and claimed plaintiffs were misrepresenting the facts in the James case and attempting to “shortcut their own burden of proof.”

A hearing on the matter was held April 23, and as of press time Allen had yet to issue a ruling.

There is also a pending motion for partial summary judgment filed by Marion County on March 28, asking that claims against the county be dismissed. The county argues it was empowered by law with discretion over how evacuations were conducted, and was forced to make judgment calls in a rapidly-deteriorating situation.

A similar motion was filed by the county Sept. 22, 2023. On Jan. 23 Judge Beth Allen denied the request, stating there were still matters of material fact to be decided at trial.

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