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.

“We are disappointed, but prepared to litigate the case in the trial court,” Michael Kron, special counsel to the Attorney General, wrote in an email to OPB.

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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.

FILE: Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

FILE: Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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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.

This story was updated on May 27, 2022 to include a comment form the Oregon Department of Justice.

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