Class certification raises stakes in $1.4 billion Oregon forest lawsuit

A Linn County judge has certified class action status to a lawsuit challenging the State of Oregon's management of state forest land. The certification allows 15 Oregon counties and roughly 130 taxing districts to pursue the case jointly, alleging they are owed $1.5 billion in damages.

It’s unlikely any county will opt out of the recently certified $1.4 billion class action lawsuit over Oregon’s forest management practices, according to the attorney leading the case.

The decision by Linn County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Murphy to certify the lawsuit as a class action means that 15 Oregon counties and roughly 130 taxing districts automatically become plaintiffs in the case unless they ask to be excluded.

John DiLorenzo, attorney for lead plaintiff Linn County, said that he’d be surprised if any of the potential plaintiffs opt out, given their financial constraints.

“Why would any of the districts want to turn down money?” he said. “I am predicting there will be zero opt outs.”

Linn County filed the lawsuit earlier this year, arguing that Oregon was obligated to maximize timber harvests from 650,000 acres of forestland that counties turned over to state ownership in the early 20th Century.

Since 1998, however, the state government has emphasized environmental protection and recreational opportunities in managing the forests for their “greatest permanent value,” according to the lawsuit.

Last month, the case crossed a significant hurdle when Murphy refused a request by Oregon’s attorneys to dismiss the lawsuit.

The class certification doesn’t come as a surprise because the judge said he was inclined to grant that request in the previous decision, but it nonetheless raises the stakes for Oregon — particularly given the prospect of trying the case before a Linn County jury.

Even if some of the counties or tax districts don’t oppose the state government’s forest management philosophy, it’s not probable they feel strongly enough to miss out on a portion of the potential $1.4 billion in damages, said DiLorenzo.

Likewise, it’s unlikely that the counties or tax districts will opt out to pursue a similar lawsuit on their own, he said.

Oregon’s attorneys have until May 2017 to file “dispositive motions” to get the case thrown out based on matters of law, but it’s unclear what arguments they could make since the lawsuit is “going to be very fact-specific,” DiLorenzo said.

Attorneys representing the state were unavailable late Friday.

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