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

Judge deducts $4.8 million from wildfire verdict award

A Portland judge has deducted $4.8 million from a $42.4 million wildfire verdict against PacifiCorp to account for payments plaintiffs already received from insurance companies.

During a May 3 hearing in James et al vs. PacifiCorp, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander granted a motion by the defendant to offset damages from a March 5 verdict.

Plaintiffs objected to the offset, arguing PacifiCorp should not be able to deduct such a large sum when the company settled for pennies on the dollar with related insurers in 2023.

Alexander upheld PacifiCorp’s position that insurers, by settling with the company, settled the claims at issue and plaintiffs could not also seek damages for these claims.

The offsets only applied to economic damages, whereas non-economic damages and punitive damages were unchanged, leaving $37.6 million from the original verdict.

Exceptional among the offsets was removal of a $969,420 award for lost revenue and business expenses from a $5.4 million total award for Upward Bound Camp in Gates.

Most of the camp was destroyed in the Santiam Fire in 2020. Executive Director Diane Turnbull said they are just now able to move forward with engineering and design of a new program building and may not return to full operations until 2026.

PacifiCorp argued May 3 that a $50,000 insurance payment for revenue losses canceled out the jury’s award, though the award was 18 times greater. Plaintiffs argued PacifiCorp was only entitled to deduct up to $50,000.

Alexander ruled in PacifiCorp’s favor and noted the insurance payment was not for itemized losses, nor was the jury’s award.

In June of 2023 a jury found PacifiCorp negligently caused the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain Complex and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. Proceedings are under way to determine damages to a class of roughly 5,000 fire survivors, including trials held in January and February.

So far $212 million has been awarded to 36 plaintiffs, accounting for insurance offsets. Plaintiffs filed 1,000 new individual claims April 29 and requested additional jury trials.

After the initial trial in 2023, PacifiCorp filed a motion that August to offset damages in light of a $55 million settlement that May with a class of 191 insurance companies. Under Oregon law, insurers may seek damages for client losses, and if resolved the client may not also seek damages for the same losses.

Plaintiffs argued PaicifiCorp did not settle individual claims with insurers but agreed to a lump sum. They also argued the $55 million settlement paled in comparison to $450 million in insurance claims over the fires.

On Dec. 1, 2023, Alexander granted the PacifiCorp motion and also applied the ruling to future jury awards in the case.

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