Wave of lawsuits blames PG&E for deadly California fires

Law firms from across the country have begun preparing and filing suits against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., blaming the utility for October’s massive firestorms and paving the way for what may result in billions of dollars in payouts if the company is found responsible.

The first suits were filed in the week after the blazes erupted, and at least seven more were filed Tuesday in superior courts in San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma counties by a team of five California law firms, including Sacramento’s Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora.

Dreyer Babich previously sued PG&E over the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people and the 2015 Butte Fire that killed two people, destroyed 549 homes and burned more than 109 square miles, mostly in Calaveras County.

Attorney Steve Campora said his firm expects to file at least five wrongful death suits in the fires in the future and that he anticipated additional lawsuits against PG&E.

“What we need to consider here is, these people are innocent victims,” Campora said. “They do nothing to contribute to the injuries or damage they sustained there in the sanctuary of their own homes, and they’re subjected to explosions and fire. I have a real problem with that.”

More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed over the series of destructive wildfires that erupted Oct. 8 and swept across Northern California’s wine country and Santa Rosa as well as Yuba and Mendocino counties. It was the deadliest week in California wildfire history, with at least 43 people killed. The value of the homes, businesses and vehicles burned in the flames is expected to total $3.3 billion.

The group of fire victims who sued Tuesday include a Napa County winery owner, former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan and Sonoma County resident Gregory Wilson, who survived the flames by seeking safety in his swimming pool. They blame PG&E for failing to maintain its power lines and for allowing trees and vegetation to grow close enough that it sparked blazes when winds knocked down the lines on the night of Oct. 8.

“...It is clear that the North Bay fires were an inevitable byproduct of PG&E’s willful and conscious disregard of public safety,” one of the lawsuits says, blaming the utility for decades-old practices of diverting money from maintenance efforts “to boost corporate profits.”

PG&E responded Tuesday with a statement noting that there is no official cause yet for what sparked the fires.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers and communities we serve,” spokesman Donald Cutler said in an email response. “Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires.

“We are aware that lawsuits have been filed. There has been no determination on the causes of the fires. We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”

But the lawsuits note that PG&E has repeatedly been fined or found liable for failing to maintain its lines and equipment, including most recently in the 2015 Butte Fire, for which the utility was fined $8.3 million by the state.

In the days before Oct. 8, Cal Fire and the National Weather Service issued stark warnings that high winds expected that weekend could spark devastating wildfires. But the lawsuits claim the gusts in the fire zones were far below the intensity needed to knock down properly constructed power poles.

A weather station in Napa County near where the Atlas Fire erupted measured wind gusts of 32 mph, the lawsuits say, far below “the speed that power lines must be able to withstand winds under state law: approximately 92 mph.”

The scope of the damages – and the notion that the fires may have been caused by a deep-pocketed utility like PG&E – have spawned online pitches to fire victims from law firms nationwide offering to represent them.

Nearly 100,000 results were produced Tuesday with a Google search for “pge fire lawsuit,” including law firm websites with titles such as “File a Fire Lawsuit – Justice for Wildfire Victims,” “Wine Country fire Victims” and “California Fire Lawsuits.”

The law firm websites offer victims the chance to fill out short forms online describing their cases, and they promote their past successes in such legal fights.

“Our firm has more than 350 attorneys who aren’t afraid to litigate against large corporations, like insurance companies,” the Orlando, Fla., law firm of Morgan & Morgan boasts on its “California Wildfire Damage Attorneys” web page. “We understand the complexities of natural disasters, having represented victims of the Gatlinburg, TN wildfires; the BP oil spill; Hurricane Katrina; the Rouse Polymerics Plant explosion in Vicksburg, MS and the Porter Ranch gas well blowout.”

The potential payouts in such cases can be enormous: In the San Bruno gas explosion, PG&E was fined $1.6 billion by the state Public Utilities Commission and agreed to $565 million in payments to settle lawsuits.

The utility already has begun an aggressive public relations effort in the aftermath of the fires, offering millions of dollars to community groups to help rebuild affected areas and providing free removal services for wood and trees in the fire zones.

But one safety advocate and utility expert said PG&E has not done enough to proactively identify failing equipment and replace it, and that the utility commission doesn’t have enough staff to ensure that PG&E does so.

“A problem is the head of the safety division at the PUC says she’s understaffed and there are 4 million telephone poles in PG&E and how’s she going to inspect all of them,” said Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek attorney and president of Collaborative Approaches to Utility Safety Enforcement, a group that advocates before the PUC. “You can’t have enough inspectors to go after 4 million telephone poles.

“On the other hand, every one of those poles has a PG&E employee who has some information about it.”

Rafferty said the utility needs to empower employees to report problems up the line all the way to top management to create safer systems, rather than relying on set schedules for when to repair or replace equipment.

“Some of this is inevitable, there’s an ‘act of God’ element in this,” he said. “Not every wildfire can be prevented.”

He added that PG&E has not been as advanced as other utilities in placing power lines underground, and that repeated fines from state regulators for equipment causing fires have not had an impact on the company. Rafferty questioned whether additional fines or settlements would affect the company, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 2001 and emerged three years later.

“PG&E has already gone bankrupt once, and they didn’t go bankrupt after San Bruno,” he said. “In fact, they prospered.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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