Plaintiffs firms, some already battling utilities over their possible roles in California’s past rash of deadly wildfires, are preparing to sue Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the coming days over catastrophic damage caused by the Camp Fire.
The Butte County blaze, which had claimed 29 lives and destroyed 6,453 residences as of Monday morning, is still burning with full containment not expected until the end of the month. But Joe Cotchett said Monday that his firm, Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, is “ready to go” to court.
“We’re not only ready to go, I’m having a conference call with other firms this afternoon” about a legal challenge, Cotchett said. “We’ll be on file not too long from now.”
The Camp Fire, which started Nov. 8 in the foothills northeast of Chico, has charred 113,000 acres and is currently tied for the deadliest wildfire on record in California. Authorities have yet to determine a cause, although focus has turned to an outage on a PG&E transmission line in Butte County that was reported 18 minutes before the fire was first reported. The utility reported the “incident,” which occurred approximately one mile away from the fire’s start, to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
“The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined,” the company said in a prepared statement. “PG&E has provided an initial electric incident report to the Safety and Enforcement Division of the California Public Utilities Commission. The information provided in this report is preliminary and PG&E will fully cooperate with any investigations.”
PG&E is already facing potentially billions of dollars in legal claims from fires that scorched the Wine Country last year. A coalition of attorneys from Cotchett Pitre; Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora; Panish Shea & Boyle; Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger; and Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery filed three separate lawsuits in San Francisco Superior Court last November alleging that the utility failed to properly maintain its power lines in the fire area as well as the property and brush surrounding them.
PG&E has been represented in those cases by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. In criminal litigation over a 2010 explosion of a natural gas line that killed eight people in San Bruno, PG&E turned to Latham & Watkins and later Jenner & Block.
Dreyer Babich partner Steven Campora confirmed on Monday that the Sacramento firm is also preparing multi-firm litigation against PG&E that could be filed within the next 10 days.
In the wake of the latest fires around the state, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, one of PG&E’s biggest critics since the San Bruno explosion in his district, suggested he may introduce legislation to dismantle the state’s investor-owned utilities.
“At some point we have to say enough is enough,” Hill told San Francisco radio station KQED. “Maybe when profits are the reason that you’re doing your job, that creates a question, especially in light of the safety aspect of it.”
PG&E’s stock price tumbled 17 percent on Monday following a 16.5 percent drop on Nov. 9. The utility was already warning this summer that it might file for bankruptcy protection.
Campora called a bankruptcy filing from PG&E “a real possibility.”
“They sought relief from the legislature for the 2017 fires, but that relief requires a financial stress test,” Campora said. “Now they have a fire where more than 6,500 homes have been destroyed and  people are already known to have died, with 200-plus missing.”
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this fall that will make it easier for utilities such as PG&E to pass along some recovery costs from the 2017 wildfires to ratepayers after regulators conduct a “stress test” of companies’ financial stability. The bill did not, however, dismantle California’s strict reliance on inverse condemnation, which holds utilities strictly liable for wildfire damages.
“I have no doubt that PG&E is fully intending … to try to abolish inverse condemnation when the Legislature returns,” said Michael A. Kelly, a partner with Walkup Melodia.
Walkup Melodia has sued PG&E on behalf of clients who lost homes and property in last year’s fires in Sonoma and Napa counties. A banner on the firm’s website says “Walkup Melodia is leading the litigation against PG&E.” Kelly said they’ve received calls from victims of the Camp Fire but have no immediate plans to run to court.
“I think it’s worthwhile to take a little time to let the smoke clear because right now it’s just chaos,” he said.