(Dec. 5, 2018) Lawyers filed suit Nov. 30, 2018 in Butte County Superior Court of California in Chico. The plaintiff is a woman who lost her home in the California wildfires which began Nov. 8, 2018 in Paradise, Calif. The suit charges California Pacific Gas & Electric with inverse condemnation, negligence, premises liability, trespass, public nuisance, private nuisance, and several other causes of action. The petition names only PG&E, but leaves the woman’s lawyers room to add as many as 50 more defendants “when they are ascertained.” The suit was filed by Peter de la Cerda of Matthews & Associates Law Firm.
The petition states:
“The Camp Fire devastated the towns of Paradise, Magalia, Pulga, Mineral Slide, Irish Towh, Centerville, Parkhill, and Concow, and terrorized several neighboring towns including Oroville, Gridley and Chico. To date, the Camp Fire has killed 81 people, making it the deadliest fire in California history. (The fire) burned 117,000 acres and destroyed 18,000 structures, more than the next seven worst fires combined. More than 150,000 residents have been displaced from their homes as a result of the Camp Fire and more than 200 people are unaccounted for. Particularly hard hit was the town of Paradise where 80 to 90 percent of the homes were destroyed.”
The Camp Fire was the single largest California wildfire in the state’s history. The petition claims that, “PG&E knew or should have known that a breach of those standards and duties constituted negligence and would expose members of the general public to risk of death, injury, and damage to their property.”
PG&E History of Safety Failures
The lawsuit further states that “PG&E has developed a regular pattern of placing its own profits before the safety of the California residents it serves and has demonstrated no intention of changing this pattern.”
The suit lists several other episodes in which PG&E was alleged to be at the center of “safety lapses that caused injury and death to California residents, and destroyed or damaged property.” That list includes:
- A 1992 Santa Rosa Gas Explosion that killed two people and injured three.
- A 1994 Trauner Fire that burned down an historic schoolhouse and 12 homes. A Nevada County jury found PG&E guilty of 739 counts of criminal negligence. PG&E was forced to pay $24 million in penalties. A 1998 CPUC report showed PG&E had diverted $77.6 million from its tree-trimming budget to other uses from 1987 to 1994. In that same time, PG&E underspent its authorized maintenance budgets by $495 million, using that money instead to boost corporate profits.
- A 1999 Pendola Fire that occurred when PG&E failed to remove a rotten pine. It burned for 11 days and scorched 11,725 acres, mostly in Tahoe and Plumas national forests. PG&E paid a $14.75 million settlement to the U.S. Forest Service in 2009, and also reached a $22.7 million settlement with CPUC.
- A 2003 Mission Substation Electrical Fire that burned for two hours and 1/3 of San Francisco lost power. A CPUC report concluded, “PG&E did not implement its own recommendations from its own investigation of the 1996 fire.”
- A 2004 Sims fire that burned more than 4,000 acres of forest land in Six Rivers and Trinity National Forests. A federal suit alleged PG&E failed to remove a decaying tree, which fell on a transmission line and began the blaze.
- A 2010 San Bruno Gas Explosion that killed eight people and injured 58 as it destroyed an entire neighborhood. NTSB issued a report that blamed PG&E’s poor pipeline management. In April 2015, CPUC slapped PG&E with a $1.6 billion fine for causing the explosion and diverting maintenance funds into stockholder dividends and executive bonuses. In Jan. 2017, a federal jury found PG&E guilty of six felony charges. The judge ordered PG&E to pay $3 million in fines for causing the explosion, and ordered the company to submit to court supervision of its natural gas operations.
- A 2015 San Francisco Electrical Explosion that injured two people, one critically.
- A 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County that ignited when a weak grey pine tree that PG&E should have removed struck a 12,0000-volt PG&E-owned power line. The fire burned for 22 days; killed two people; destroyed more than 70,000 acres; destroyed and/or damaged 475 residences, 343 outbuildings, and 45 other structures. Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes.
- The 2017 North Bay Fires that began when PG&E-owned equipment contacted vegetation due to “PG&E’s disregard of mandated safety practices and the foreseeable risks associated with its infrastructure.” These fires killed at least 43 people, injured many others, burned more than 245,000 acres, destroyed more than 14, 700 homes.
2013 Liberty Report
The petition also details the role of a consulting group hired to investigate PG&E’s safety practices in order to improve on them. The Liberty Consulting Group sent a report to the Safety and Enforcement Division of the CPUC in May 2013. Liberty concluded that “several aspects of the PG&E distribution system present significant safety issues.” Liberty found that, “addressing aging infrastructure and adding SCADA to the [PG&E] system comprise the major focuses of safety initiatives for the distribution system.”
After the Liberty Report, PG&E began to state publicly that it was treating wildfires as an enterprise-level risk.
“However,” reads the petition, “the methodology used by PG&E to evaluate the severity of that risk was, and is, unscientific and not based on valid statistical methodology. Instead, PG&E’s method is to engage in a group discussion where an agreement is reached on a specific risk level based on personal opinion, anecdotal evidence, and factual misconceptions. This process has led to PG&E’s failure to properly evaluate the frequency and severity of the risk posed by wildfires.”
The petition also notes that a 2014 audit of PG&E’s North Valley Division revealed that between 2009 and 204 there were more than 3,400 PG&E repair and maintenance requests in the area of the Camp Fire that were completed past the date of the scheduled action.
Further, 44 fires in Butte County were caused by electrical equipment from 2006-2016. In 2015, electrical power problems sparked the burning of 149,241 acres across California, more than twice the number from any other cause.
A 2017 CPUC report found “Poorly maintained poles and attachments have caused substantial property damage and repeated loss of life in this State.”
The petition further charges that PG&E instituted a “Run to Failure” approach to maintenance that included its purchasing insurance coverage to cover punitive damages in amounts that exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.
“PG&E purchased insurance policies that cover punitive damages for the purpose of providing corporate security at the cost of public safety,” the law suit alleges. “This contributed to a culture of reckless disregard for the safety of the residents of Northern and Central California and contributed to the cause of the Camp Fire.”
Do PG&E Profits trump Safety Issues?
The lawsuit also alleges that “PG&E’s corporate culture is the root cause of the Camp Fire. (Rather) than spend the money it obtains from customers for infrastructure maintenance and safety, PG&E funnels this funding to boost its own corporate profits and compensation.”
In one of the most incendiary allegations of the petition, the suit claims, “PG&E has implemented multiple programs that provide monetary incentives to its employees, agents and/or contractors to not protect public safety. Prior to the Butte Fire, PG&E chose to provide a monetary incentive to its contractors to cut fewer trees, even though PG&E was required to have an inspection program in place that removed dangerous trees and reduced the risk of wildfires.”
PG&E officials have noted publicly that the cause of the fires is still being investigated. No definitive conclusions have yet been drawn.
California Wildfires Lawsuit Filed in Butte County
The case is 18CV03874, Deborah Glass vs. PG&E Corporation, et al. It is filed in Butte County Superior Court of California.