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Health and Medicine

Court denies Oregon’s request to scrap lawsuit over prison COVID cases

Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore., in May 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
/
Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore., in May 2021.

A group of adults in custody who contracted COVID-19 first sued the state in April 2020, This spring a federal magistrate deemed the lawsuit a class action. Oregon appealed the class certification to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Thursday, a three-judge panel rejected Oregon's arguments, allowing the case to move forward.

A federal appeals court has denied Oregon’s request to derail a class action lawsuit over the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic inside its prisons. The ruling keeps pressure on the state in a case that could ultimately lead to payments to those who caught COVID while in prison or damages paid to family members of the dozens who have died from the disease behind bars.

In April, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman certified the lawsuit. The state appealed Beckerman’s decision. On Thursday, a three judge panel with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the appeal, upholding Beckerman’s ruling.

The decision is thought to be the first ruling of its kind in the nation where a federal judge has signed off on imprisoned people suing for damages over a state’s pandemic response. It opens the door to a potentially massive liability that could cost Oregon millions of dollars to resolve.

In Oregon, 45 people in Department of Corrections custody have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and more than 5,000 people have tested positive for the virus while in custody.

As OPB has previously reported, a group of adults in custody who contracted COVID-19 first sued the state in April 2020, alleging culpability by Gov. Kate Brown, Corrections Department Director Colette Peters and Health Authority Director Patrick Allen, among other state officials. The lawsuit focuses on how the state centralized decision-making for all prisons through the Department of Corrections’ operations division. By signing off on policies and procedures, the state’s prison system created a top-down approach to managing the virus, the inmates argued through their attorneys.

In her ruling, Beckerman signed off on two separate groups. One will include the families of 45 adults who died in the state’s custody and “for whom COVID-19 caused or contributed to their death.” The other will include anyone incarcerated after Feb. 1, 2020, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 at least 14 days after they were incarcerated.

The state will now have to move forward with the case. Trials likely won’t start until 2024.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.