Brian Strange had just landed at the airport on Nov. 9 when he got a note from his wife. She had evacuated their Malibu home, fleeing with their kids and dogs.
So he returned to his home the only way he could: by boat. Once on land, he found no firefighters. But many of his neighbors were fighting off the flames. He tossed a smoldering piece of wood near his guesthouse into the pool.
“I had a lot of memories in that house, and I felt like, I have a pump in my pool, hoses all over, I was willing to fight the fire and do the best I could,” said Strange, of Strange & Butler in Los Angeles.
Raging wildfires this week upended the lives of California lawyers, many of whom fought for their homes, battled nightmarish traffic and smoky air, juggled evacuations or, in the worst cases, returned to homes burned to the ground.
Many are gearing up for lawsuits that could cost billions of dollars.
“I would say the probability of lawsuits is 100 to 110 percent,” said Ronald Goldman, senior partner at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, which is investigating the wildfires in both Northern and Southern California.
On Tuesday, the first lawsuit against PG&E Corp. was filed in San Francisco Superior Court over the Camp Fire, which, as of Friday, was blamed for 63 deaths, according to Butte County officials, and has destroyed the town of Paradise. (Sixty-six persons throughout California have died as a result of the fires, according to media reports Friday.)
A coalition of law firms—Gibbs Law Group, Danko Meredith and Corey, Luzaich, de Ghetaldi & Riddle—filed that suit, but plaintiffs lawyers say they are gearing up for more lawsuits.
On Thursday, the first lawsuit against Southern California Edison was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court over the Woolsey Fire, which has scorched nearly 100,000 acres, largely in Malibu and Calabasas, where many lawyers live, and in the San Fernando Valley, which is home to several law offices. That fire killed three people and burned more than 500 structures to the ground.
For Alexander Robertson, who filed the suit against Southern California Edison, it was personal.
“The fire burned down across the street from my home,” said Robertson, who lives in Simi Valley. “We were at ground zero. By the time the police officers came and knocked on our door, fire already burned through. It was moving so fast they couldn’t get out ahead of it and tell people to evacuate. The flames were up on the ridge and over the mountain.”
Robertson, of Robertson & Associates, represented 450 victims of last year’s Thomas Fire, which ravaged nearby Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This time, his own 12-person office in Westlake Village was under mandatory evacuation through Wednesday, and he helped his neighbor fight off flames with 500 feet of fire hose he hooked up to a hydrant.
“Helping my neighbor defend their home, having the flames come within 50 feet of their home, gave me a new appreciation for what our fire clients go through. It’s scary,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize you can’t just dial 911 and expect the cavalry to show up. Sometimes, it’s up to you.”
That’s how Strange saw it. After saving his own house, he used his 52-foot Express Cruiser to bring supplies to neighbors who had stayed in Malibu to save their homes, despite mandatory evacuations. Using kayaks and surf boards, he and others unloaded five boat trips of supplies: gasoline for generators, clean water, food, masks for the smoke, shovels.
“It’s understandable in some sense—the authorities didn’t want people to stay behind, but the people who stayed behind are the one who saved the homes, and they didn’t have supplies, and didn’t have a way to get in,” he said. “The only way to get food and gas and generators to these people was by boat.”
Once on land, he tried to put out half a dozen spot fires, which threatened to engulf homes. In the end, he said, the Woolsey Fire destroyed 70 homes in Point Dume.
“Certain areas, where it came up canyons, look like a war zone,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Even for lawyers who didn’t fight their own fires, this week has been far from ordinary. More than 250,000 people were evacuated, and road closures caused massive traffic problems—even for Los Angeles.
Robertson said everyone in his office was evacuated but no one lost their homes.
“We were down to a skeleton staff,” Robertson said. “We told our employees: take care of your families first, and then business obviously comes second. And everybody pitches in to do what they have to do to try to service the clients, meet deadlines.”
Ray Boucher, of Boucher LLP, a plaintiffs firm in Woodland Hills, said he closed his office Nov. 9 due to smoke and traffic problems. He even couldn’t make a breakfast meeting Thursday morning that was six miles away after spending 45 minutes to go a few blocks.
“We were in court yesterday, and one of the attorneys there was on a deadline and he had to plead to the court for additional time to meet the deadline because he hasn’t been able to get to his office to get the material,” he said.
But that’s nothing compared to those who have lost their homes, and Boucher said he has several friends in that situation.
“My personal standpoint, I have close friends who’ve lost everything in Calabasas and Malibu, and are still displaced and unsure what their lives are going to be like moving forward,” he said.
Robertson’s lawsuit, which names both Southern California Edison and its parent company, Edison International, alleges that the Woolsey Fire began Nov. 8 at the company’s substation close to the former Rocketdyne facility in Simi Valley. In an incident report that day to the California Public Utilities Commission, Edison cited a problem with a circuit at that station just two minutes before the Woolsey Fire started, the complaint says.
The complaint, which seeks an unspecified amount of punitive damages, alleges that Edison, sued over prior wildfires due to poor maintenance of over ground power lines, was negligent in failing to shut off the circuit amid Red Flag warnings of dangerous Santa Ana winds.
Robertson filed the suit on behalf of a Malibu resident who lost his 20-acre ranch, including his home, cars and pets.
Edison’s incident report also is the focus for other lawyers looking to sue.
“There’s a reasonable suspicion that the origin of the fire may have been an electrical spark,” Goldman said.
Edison, which has been dealing with fixing power outages to fire victims, said in a Thursday status update that the cause of the fires is unknown and that the incident report is preliminary.
“The submission of this report to the CPUC does not mean that the incident was caused by utility facilities,” Edison’s status report says. “It is intended, out of an abundance to caution, to put the CPUC on notice of an incident so that it can conduct its own investigation.”
As to potential damages, Malibu and Calabasas are predominantly wealthy areas of Los Angeles, but many people didn’t have insurance, or not enough insurance. Goldman also questioned whether insurance carriers could deny coverage, particularly in burned-out areas that might face mudslides due to rain, predicted next week in Los Angeles. Many homeowners have not been able to return to their homes to secure them against mudslides, he said.
And not all the fire victims were wealthy.
“It’s not all movie stars and $25 million mansions,” Goldman said. Many people in Malibu had homes handed down to them by family members and paid nothing but property taxes.
Robertson said he was aware of an entire trailer park in Agoura Hills that burned down.
“Most of the people we’re talking to now have lost everything,” he said. “They’ve lost their homes, vehicles, pets. They’ve been completely wiped out. They literally ran from their home with the clothes on their backs.”