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

Latest wildfire verdict survives PacifiCorp challenge

A $37.6 million jury award has survived a challenge by PacifiCorp in an ongoing wildfire lawsuit as parties tussle over the future of more than 1,000 pending claims for damages.

On May 23 Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Steffan Alexander denied a motion by the PacifiCorp to throw out the verdict in the second damages trial of James et al vs. PacifiCorp.

In his order, Alexander sided with plaintiffs who argued there was ample evidence for the jury to award damages, and that PacifiCorp had not demonstrated its process rights were violated.

This was the third verdict to survive a PacifiCorp challenge in the lower courts, including a $94.7 million award from June 12, 2023, and a $79.7 million award from Jan. 24.

The company has appealed these outcomes to the Oregon Court of Appeals. On May 29 it notified the court the third verdict has been incorporated into its appeal originally filed Jan. 4. Opening briefs had yet to be filed in the appeal as of press time and no hearing dates were set.

Meanwhile plaintiffs have requested trials for an additional 1,046 fire survivors seeking a combined $44.5 billion in damages, according to mass filings on April 29 and May 16. 

On May 10 PacifiCorp filed a motion to strike the first round of 1,000 complaints as “sham” filings meant to publicly embarrass the company due to the high damages figure. 

In an opposition filing May 28, plaintiffs argued if PacifiCorp is embarrassed it is the result of its own actions that caused the fires and is not grounds to dismiss the complaints.

As of press time a hearing to consider PacifiCorp’s motion had not been set, nor were any additional trials.

PacifiCorp was found liable during the 2023 trial for negligently causing the Santiam, Echo Mountain Complex, South Obechain and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. 

The jury determined PacifiCorp acted willfully and recklessly when it chose to keep its electric grid energized during high heat and wind conditions, despite warnings from state fire officials.

After the initial liability phase, Phase II began to determine damages for a class of roughly 5,000 fire survivors. According to the recent mass filings of claims, survivors of the Santiam Fire make up roughly two-thirds of class members.

In its motion challenging the mass filings, PacifiCorp said the “jaw-dropping” damages requested by plaintiffs were an unfair attempt to generate negative press. The initial filings were less than a week from a May 4 shareholder meeting of parent company Berkshire Hathaway. News of the filings was reported broadly by national media.

PacifiCorp also argued the complaints themselves were invalid, noting they were “short-form” and contained few details of actual losses. The company also noted the uniform damages requested by all plaintiffs whether they were adults or minor children or spouses of those who already received damages in prior trials.

On May 28, plaintiffs said even if PacifiCorp’s concerns were valid, none of these issues justify throwing out the claims. 

Plaintiffs said they could not help the timing of Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting and that the April 29 filing had more to do with unsuccessful mediation talks on April 23. They also said shareholders have a right to know the details of litigation pending against the company.

Plaintiffs additionally argued the new claims at issue follow the same format and formula as short-form complaints filed for the two prior Phase II trials, to which PacifiCorp did not object.

Plaintiffs said PacifiCorp specifically requested the use of short-form complaints at the outset of Phase II as an efficient means to move the case along and is only just now opposed to them.

Plaintiffs said the large volume of claims was motivated by a “desire to hasten resolution of a case” and that PacifiCorp’s motion should be denied as “a waste of time and resources.”

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