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Jury begins deliberations in 2020 Labor Day wildfire lawsuit against PacifiCorp

Remains of the devastation from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire are evident in the small town of Gates, Feb. 26, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Remains of the devastation from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire are evident in the small town of Gates, Feb. 26, 2021.

The trial, which began at the end of April, wrapped up closing statements from both sides Wednesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Now both sides await a verdict.

After seven weeks of detailed analysis about topics as far-ranging as fire plumes and metallurgy, jurors will soon decide whether the electricity provider PacifiCorp should pay out for thousands of properties destroyed during the 2020 Labor Day wildfires in Oregon.

The trial, which began at the end of April, wrapped up with closing statements Wednesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Now both sides await a verdict.

Plaintiffs in the class-action case are seeking $1.6 billion in damages. They allege that PacifiCorp acted negligently by refusing to heed extreme weather warnings in 2020 and turn off its power lines. Attorneys in the case have drawn connections between PacifiCorp’s decision to keep its lines on and fires that erupted across Western Oregon.

“They have no real response to any of this,” attorney Cody Berne told the jury on behalf of the plaintiffs during closing statements. “[PacifiCorp] started the fires. They destroyed the evidence. And now they have come before you and are asking not to be held accountable.”

The 2020 Labor Day fires were the most costly in Oregon history, killing at least nine people, demolishing thousands of homes, and burning more than 1 million acres. The case against PacifiCorp revolves around wildfires along the Oregon Coast, in Southern Oregon and in the Santiam Canyon.

Throughout the trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys largely focused on executives and decision makers at PacifiCorp, saying they opted to keep the power on even as line workers for the company fielded calls about damaged electrical equipment. Those same executives, plaintiffs’ attorneys said in their closing, then took no responsibility at the trial, instead saying it was company policy to let front-line workers make de-energization decisions.

“How many fires did PacifiCorp have to start?” Berne asked jurors, according to a stream provided by Courtroom View Network. “How many homes and communities did they have to burn down before the people at the top of the company … would take that most simple of steps?”

As a sign of the company’s alleged negligence, Berne pointed to a trial deposition from PacifiCorp systems operator Dave Trammell, who said no company supervisors worked the night shift on Labor Day 2020 when major fires blew up across the state.

“That’s leadership at PacifiCorp: people at the top passing the buck,” Berne said.

In three of the fires at issue in the case — the Echo Mountain Complex, 242 and South Obenchain fires — attorneys for the plaintiffs told jurors that PacifiCorp had failed to offer any alternative explanation on how the fires started if the cause wasn’t electrical equipment.

Several people who lost homes or live in the fire areas testified that they saw PacifiCorp’s equipment spark after being hit by trees and branches that fell in extreme winds on Labor Day. For fires in which both sides agreed trees hit power lines, PacifiCorp lawyers said the branches either couldn’t have sparked the line or they were healthy trees no one could have predicted would fall.

The bulk of PacifiCorp’s defense focused on the Santiam Canyon, where more than half the class members live.

Utility company lawyer Douglas Dixon spent time Wednesday chronologically going through “alleged power line fires” in the canyon, explaining how they could not have spread to plaintiffs’ homes.

He also said PacifiCorp does not have equipment in some areas where plaintiffs have accused them of causing damage.

“These are really important and tell you just how made up this class boundary is,” Dixon told jurors on behalf of PacifiCorp. “Plaintiffs did not identify a single power line ignition in either of the westernmost and easternmost portions of this class boundary.”

For fire areas where the cause was less clear, the attorneys and experts who testified on PacifiCorp’s behalf often pointed to the Beachie Creek Fire as the main culprit. The Beachie Creek Fire had ignited weeks before Labor Day and eventually burned through Santiam Canyon in the extreme weather.

As OPB previously reported, jurors heard a bevy of fire behavior experts in the trial who often presented conflicting studies about the Beachie Creek Fire’s path and speed that night.

With no government investigations of the 2020 Labor Day wildfires completed nearly three years later, the resolution of the PacifiCorp case offers an opportunity for answers that have been elusive in the Santiam Canyon and beyond.

PacifiCorp’s attorneys have variously called the fires unprecedented, the result of climate change and an act of god. The company said it had done all it could in its planning given the scope of the 2020 fires.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs noted that PacifiCorp focused its fire preparation efforts primarily on the 17% of its service territory it considered at highest risk.

“Their plan on Labor Day was quite literally to focus only on those zones,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Nicholas Rosinia. “They made a calculated decision.”

Rosinia encouraged jurors to not let the company sway them with statements about climate change, saying that without a spark from electrical lines, many of the fires in the case would not have started.

He also said that if jurors did not find PacifiCorp responsible, it would tell the fire victims in the case that their “lives have been erased, and it’s nobody’s fault.”

“You have the ability, through your verdict, to tell the survivors of [PacifiCorp’s] fires that they matter,” Rosinia said in the final moments of the trial, “that somebody has heard what happened, understood what happened.”

Jurors in the trial will begin deliberations Thursday, where they will decide on damages for each of the named 17 plaintiffs in the case. If the jurors also decide PacifiCorp is responsible for damages to members of the class, the case will go to a second phase with a separate court proceeding to calculate those damages.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Ryan Haas has been with Oregon Public Broadcasting since 2013. His work has won numerous awards, including two National Magazine Award nominations for the podcast "Bundyville." Prior to working at OPB, Haas worked at newspapers in Illinois, Florida, Oregon and the Caribbean.