A federal appeals court has denied Oregon’s motion to fail in a class action lawsuit over the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in its prisons. The ruling puts pressure on the state in a case that could ultimately result in payments to those who contracted COVID in prison or compensation payments to family members of dozens who died from the disease behind bars.

“We are disappointed but ready to take the case to court,” Michael Kron, the attorney general’s special counsel, wrote in an email to OPB.

In April, US Judge Stacie Beckerman upheld the lawsuit. The state appealed Beckerman’s decision. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the appeal and upheld Beckerman’s verdict.

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

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

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The decision is believed to be the first of its kind in the country where a federal judge has signed off on detainees filing claims 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 have died in Justice Department custody after testing positive for COVID-19, and more than 5,000 people have tested positive for the virus while in custody.

As OPB previously reported, a group of incarcerated adults who contracted COVID-19 filed a lawsuit against the state for the first time in April 2020, alleging state officials, Gov. Kate Brown, Corrections Department director Colette Peters, and director of the Board of Health, Patrick Allen, to be guilty. The lawsuit focuses on how the state centralized decision-making for all prisons through the Operations Division of the Department of Corrections. By signing off on policies and procedures, the state’s prison system has created a top-down approach to dealing with the virus, inmates argued through their attorneys.

In her decision, Beckerman signed two separate groups. One will include the families of 45 adults who died in government custody and “for whom COVID-19 caused or contributed to their deaths”. The other includes all individuals detained after February 1, 2020 who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at least 14 days after their detention.

Now the state has to push the case forward. Trials are unlikely to begin until 2024.

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

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