Business & Real Estate

Growing number of lawsuits blame PG&E for Butte fire

Sacramento lawyer John Airola, raised in Calaveras County, embraces fire victim Kitty Smith, 54, who was his third-grade classmate, on Tuesday at the San Andreas town hall, in San Andreas. Lawsuits are stacking up against PG&E for allegedly starting the Butte fire. At least four lawsuits filed in recent weeks allege the utility giant didn’t properly maintain its power lines and that a transmission line touching a tree sparked the September fire that killed two and destroyed 475 homes.
Sacramento lawyer John Airola, raised in Calaveras County, embraces fire victim Kitty Smith, 54, who was his third-grade classmate, on Tuesday at the San Andreas town hall, in San Andreas. Lawsuits are stacking up against PG&E for allegedly starting the Butte fire. At least four lawsuits filed in recent weeks allege the utility giant didn’t properly maintain its power lines and that a transmission line touching a tree sparked the September fire that killed two and destroyed 475 homes. aseng@sacbee.com

Lawyers started converging on Calaveras County last month before the flames of the Butte fire were even out. Displaced residents reported finding fliers from distant law firms stuck under the windshield wipers of their parked cars.

Like other disasters involving large utilities, the Butte fire is spawning lawsuits and drawing attorneys from San Francisco to San Diego. Total settlements for similar fires have been in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a handful of cases already filed, with more sure to come, plaintiffs’ lawyers blame Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, for causing a fire that killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and burned nearly 71,000 acres, mainly in Calaveras County. It was the seventh most destructive wildfire in state history.

PG&E has publicly acknowledged the possibility that one of its power lines might have started the blaze.

“While we don’t have all the facts yet, a live tree may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point,” Barry Anderson, PG&E’s vice president of emergency preparedness and operations, said during a Cal Fire briefing on Sept. 16 in Angels Camp. “We are cooperating fully with Cal Fire in an investigation of whether this could have been a source of ignition for the Butte fire.”

State regulations govern the maintenance of power lines. The rules generally require utilities to keep their lines clear of trees and other vegetation, with distances ranging from 18 inches for low-voltage lines in normal conditions to 10 feet of clearance for high voltage lines in areas of Southern California where the threat of fire is extreme. The companies have easements through private property and are allowed to access their lines for maintenance.

The danger of highly destructive fires in the tinder-dry foothills of Calaveras County during the drought made tree trimming around power lines more crucial, plaintiffs’ lawyers contend in the lawsuits. The Butte fire was the result of PG&E’s negligence in keeping the lines clear, they said.

Fred Slifkoff, the lead plaintiff in one of the main Butte fire lawsuits, said he wouldn’t be surprised if a PG&E power line had sparked the inferno.

The retired schoolteacher, 80, lost his rural home in the Butte fire. He said he tried for years to get utility crews to keep the power lines near his house free of branches but rarely felt they’d done an adequate job.

“I received all kinds of excuses from them,” Slifkoff said. “In my estimation, it was a case where a big conglomerate corporation has control over an area to deliver electricity, and they don’t want to spend all the money they should to clear brush and protect homes and homeowners.”

As the Butte fire roared over the hill near his house, Slifkoff had minutes to grab his two cats and flee before a 20-foot-high wall of flames engulfed them. The fire devastated Slifkoff’s community, Mountain Ranch, a rural retreat of about 1,600 residents east of the Calaveras County seat of San Andreas.

The tree that might have started the Butte fire, a medium-size gray pine, was cut down and is stored in a Cal Fire evidence area near Auburn, Slifkoff’s attorneys said.

Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said fire officials “haven’t announced a cause yet, but we’re working closely with PG&E and looking at what they say may have caused it.”

The fire began Sept. 9 near Butte Mountain Road, a rural byway east of Jackson in southern Amador County. It jumped the Mokelumne River into Calaveras County and raced up forested slopes, driven by gusting winds.

Since the flames were put out, attorneys have been recruiting new clients at town hall-style meetings where guest experts talk about dealing with insurance claims, clearing trees and other matters. The lawyers make themselves available at the meetings for legal advice and to sign up clients.

So far, at least four major lawsuits have been filed against PG&E and the companies it hired to clear power lines in the Butte fire area.

The first civil action was filed in Calaveras Superior Court in late September by two San Diego-area law firms that specialize in wildfire litigation. It has been joined by dozens of homeowners and renters seeking unspecified damages related to the loss of their homes, trees, family and irreplaceable heirlooms. It also seeks compensation for emotional harm.

Two law firms in the San Francisco Bay Area sued the companies Oct. 26 in San Francisco Superior Court for causing the wrongful death of Owen Goldsmith, 82, a composer and music teacher who died in his home in Mountain Ranch.

And a consortium of lawyers with their roots in Calaveras County represent more than 200 clients and have filed two lawsuits so far in Calaveras Superior Court. They said more will follow.

“A lot of the people I’m representing are the parents or kids of people I went to high school with,” said Steve Campora, a partner at Sacramento’s largest plaintiffs’ firm, Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora.

Campora’s father was the football coach at Calaveras High School in San Andreas, where the lawyer’s 86-year-old mother still lives. He has been sleeping in his old room on his frequent trips to the area to meet with clients.

Campora is working with John Airola, another Sacramento plaintiffs’ attorney who grew up in San Andreas, and John’s cousins, Steven and Kenneth Airola, brothers with a law firm in San Andreas. The Airola family has produced prominent lawyers, judges and district attorneys in Calaveras County for the past century.

Slifkoff, the lead plaintiff in the first case Campora filed against PG&E over the Butte fire, taught the lawyers business and typing at Calaveras High School. They still call him “Mr. Slifkoff.”

At a gathering Tuesday at the San Andreas town hall, the lawyers met with current and prospective clients. They had an easy rapport with many, hugging old friends who’d lost their homes and listening to their stories and concerns.

“We have the ethics of people here,” John Airola said, explaining the close connection. He said his group did not distribute fliers while the fire was still burning.

In addition to his hometown credentials, Campora has a track record of successfully suing PG&E in major cases. He acted as a lead attorney in the collection of lawsuits against the utility over the San Bruno natural-gas explosion that killed eight people and incinerated a neighborhood. It happened on Sept. 9, 2010 – five years to the day before the Butte fire started.

He settled the case on behalf of his own clients, the family of a victim, for an undisclosed amount. News reports in 2013 said PG&E was expected to pay $565 million to settle all the lawsuits against it from the San Bruno disaster. California regulators fined the utility a record $1.6 billion in April for failing to safely operate its gas transmission lines.

Like other lawyers pressing Butte fire claims, Campora said PG&E has a long record of poor safety practices of which the Butte fire is just the latest example. Even a $1.6 billion fine didn’t seem to make much of a difference, he said.

The state Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation in August into PG&E’s safety practices, probing whether they have contributed to accidents such as the San Bruno explosion, he noted.

PG&E has “repeatedly been cited and fined for violations of federal and state regulations, yet they don’t change their behavior,” Campora said.

Though he lost his home, Slifkoff said he most regrets leaving behind a box containing his wife’s ashes. Donna Slifkoff, 78, died of lung cancer in June after 58 years of marriage. She asked her husband to scatter her ashes in the forested Sierra Nevada foothills she had loved so much. He was waiting for winter rains to make the creeks flow.

With little time to think when it was time to evacuate, Slifkoff said he took what he thought would mean the most to his wife.

But he forgot her ashes.

“The kitties were hers, and they were living, so I grabbed them,” Slifkoff said Tuesday as he struggled with tears. “I hadn’t gotten over the death of my wife, and I got slammed by this.”

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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