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

PacifiCorp moves to strike ‘sham’ wildfire claims

PacifiCorp has objected to a recent mass filing by 1,000 wildfire survivors as a “sham” meant to embarrass parent company Berkshire Hathaway prior to its annual shareholder meeting.

On May 10, PacifiCorp filed a motion in Multnomah County Circuit Court to strike the new claims, which were filed April 29 in James et al vs. PacifiCorp over the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Each plaintiff is seeking $30 million for a total of $30 billion. More than two thirds of these claimants were survivors of the Santiam Fire.

Plaintiffs are also seeking $7.5 billion in punitive damages and $5 billion in doubled economic damages due to willful negligence, according to the filing.

PacifiCorp’s motion said this total figure was “jaw-dropping” and intended by plaintiffs to allegedly generate negative press prior to the shareholder meeting May 4.

According to a report by Climatewire, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett said during the meeting that wildfires have made energy companies a risky investment. He said Berkshire Hathaway is seeking “legislative and regulatory reform” in states where PacifiCorp operates to shield the company from further wildfire losses.

The motion also said $30 billion did not reflect actual damages likely to be awarded by a jury. So far $212 million has been awarded to 36 plaintiffs, which equates to roughly $5.88 million each.

“The $30 billion damages claim…is unsupportable and was designed for the improper purpose of attempting to pressure PacifiCorp into unfavorable settlements by generating adverse national news stories,” said the May 10 motion.

PacifiCorp requested a hearing before Judge Steffan Alexander to argue the matter. As of press deadline no hearing date had been set. Also as of deadline plaintiffs had yet to respond to PacifiCorp’s motion.

In addition to alleged media pressure, PacifiCorp said plaintiffs’ mass filing allegedly violated a case management order signed by Alexander Sept. 20, 2023, setting rules for Phase II of the lawsuit.

A Phase 1 trial last year found PacifiCorp negligently caused the Santiam, Echo Mountain Complex, South Obenchain and 242 fires. Phase II is under way to determine damages to roughly 5,000 remaining plaintiffs.

Alexander’s order set guidelines for three Phase II trials, two of which were held in January and March while a third in April was canceled after those plaintiffs settled with PacifiCorp. The utility argued the order applied only to the three trials and that no rules were set for additional filings.

PacifiCorp also said the filings violated an agreement the company made with plaintiffs that the immediate family of claimants in the Phase II trials would not seek damages for the same losses. The motion noted there were 17 such family members among the 1,000 new claims.

The company called attention to the 115 minors among claimants and said it was highly improbable children could have suffered $30 million in damages. It cited an Oregon law barring minors from owning real estate.

PacifiCorp further argued that such “enormous” damages were not presented to jurors during the January and March trials, rather plaintiffs requested individualized amounts from the juries. According to court records, the plaintiffs in both of these trials, totaling 19 individuals, submitted individual claims similar to the April 29 filing seeking a uniform $30 million each.

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