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Mediation fails in PacifiCorp suit as wildfire claims multiply

Mediation attempts have broken down in a class action lawsuit against PacifiCorp over the 2020 wildfires and plaintiffs are now seeking expedited trials to resolve nearly $60 billion in pending claims.

On May 31, plaintiffs in James et al vs. PacifiCorp filed a motion in Multnomah County Circuit Court to approve a “special-purpose wildfire docket” to resolve claims more speedily.

Under the proposed plan, up to five jury trials would be held per month with up to 10 plaintiffs each, while a rotating roster of Multnomah County judges would preside over the trials. This would resolve claims at a rate of roughly 600 per year, and plaintiffs said all pending claims could be resolved “in a few years.”

The motion noted plaintiffs have been left with no option other than jury trials as PacifiCorp has asserted its right to trial by jury rather than alternative resolutions such as a special master.

This comes as plaintiffs filed 319 new claims for damages May 31, bringing total pending claims to 1,365 since an initial mass filing April 29. Each plaintiff has requested up to $42.5 million in damages, bringing total damage requests to $58 billion.

Plaintiffs argued this approach to trial management is appropriate when the court is overwhelmed with similar claims. They cited a Portland judge’s decision in 2001 to create alternative court procedures to resolve hundreds of pending asbestos lawsuits which were determined to be “similar” and “complex” in nature.

Plaintiffs requested a hearing to argue the matter at the earliest date available for the court, and as of press time no hearing had been scheduled.

Also as of press time PacifiCorp had not filed a response to plaintiffs’ motion, and according to plaintiffs the company was not in agreement with the plan.

The company has objected to the recent mass filings, and in motions filed May 10 and 31 called them “sham” claims without legal basis or merit that should be struck from proceedings. Plaintiffs responded May 28 that the new filings follow the same format and standards as 20 claims filed late last year in Phase II of the lawsuit, to which PacifiCorp did not object.

PacifiCorp was found liable during Phase I in 2023 for negligently causing the Santiam, Echo Mountain Complex, South Obechain and 242 fires on Sept. 7, 2020. Phase II then began to resolve an estimated 5,000 pending claims including two damages trials which began in January and February.

PacifiCorp denies wrongdoing and has appealed the $212 million in judgments awarded so far in the case.

In the May 31 motion, plaintiffs said a primary reason mediation failed was PacifiCorp’s unwillingness during mediation to compensate survivors for non-economic losses. Of the damages awarded so far, $147.75 million were non-economic damages, compared to $22.2 million in economic damages and $41.28 in punitive damages.

Plaintiffs’ motion said evidence of this firm stance was seen during the annual shareholder meeting of parent company Berkshire Hathaway on May 4. Berkshire Hathaway Energy Chair and CEO Greg Abel told investors Oregon law and case law prevents non-economic damages from being awarded for wildfires, which plaintiffs argued was categorically false.

The Canyon Weekly reached out to PacifiCorp for clarification of Abel’s remarks. A representative for the company said: “The statements made by Berkshire Hathaway executive leadership stand for themselves.”

Plaintiffs also said there is an urgent need for survivors to receive compensation as many continue to struggle years after the fires including being displaced and unable to rebuild. They also said timeliness is key because an estimated 20 percent of class members are older than 75 and some have already died while the case was pending.

“The sheer number of fire survivors renders it impossible to determine everyone’s damages in their lifetime under any regular docket,” said the motion. “…Many more [class members] live every day with the trauma of losing everything. And all the survivors need resolution now.”

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