PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal judge has certified a class-action lawsuit in Oregon over state leaders' response to the COVID-19 pandemic inside its prisons.
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 acknowledges Corrections has taken some measures but argues they have not been enough.
"This really is quite a groundbreaking order, and decision, and it could potentially be a model for advocates in other parts of the country where they're having similar problems," Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union's National Prison Project, told Oregon Public Broadcasting this week.
In Oregon, 45 people in the Department of Corrections custody have so far died after testing positive for COVID-19, and more than 5,000 people have tested positive for the virus while in custody.
Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman signed off on a wrongful death class that will include the estates of 45 adults who died in the state's custody and "for whom COVID-19 caused or contributed to their death." The other is a damages class that would include anyone incarcerated after Feb. 1, 2020, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 at least 14 days after they were incarcerated.
The state could appeal Beckerman's ruling, settle, or take the cases to trial. Spokespersons for the governor's office, the Oregon Department of Corrections and the state's Department of Justice declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Attorneys bringing the lawsuit have already used it to secure vaccines for adults in custody in February 2021 before vaccines were widely available.
In her ruling, Beckerman said she found the theory of the case was sufficient to certify classes. Other questions, she wrote, could only be answered by a jury, should the cases go to trial. For example, Beckerman did not answer whether the state acted with deliberate indifference, or whether that indifference was the reason thousands were sickened with COVID-19.