A coalition of plaintiffs firms has sued Pacific Gas & Electric claiming the utility company’s lackluster maintenance of power lines, poles, and the brush beneath them played a major role in sparking the wildfires that ravaged Northern California’s wine country last month.
Forty-three people died and about 100,000 people were displaced after wildfires burned about 200,000 acres and destroyed about 8,000 structures across North Bay counties.
Attorneys at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy; 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 Tuesday on behalf of families affected by the fires, claiming PG&E knew its electrical infrastructure was aging and ineffective at preventing wildfires.
At a press conference at the Cotchett Pitre firm’s Burlingame office Tuesday, name partner Frank Pitre said PG&E doesn’t “have an effective risk management process that is able to adequately and clearly uncover the risk of a wildfire which they know is one of the monumental risks that they face.”
A PG&E spokesman said Tuesday the company is aware of the lawsuits, but stressed there’s been no official determination about what caused the fires. Both Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission have open investigations into the cause.
“We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover,” said PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler.
PG&E is reportedly asking the CPUC to allow it to pass any costs associated with the wildfire along to ratepayers rather than shareholders.
Pitre and his firm previously targeted PG&E with a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the wake of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which destroyed a residential neighborhood, killed eight people and injured dozens more. Pitre and partner Mark Molumphy secured a $90 million settlement for PG&E shareholders in April to settle claims linking the explosion to mismanagement at the company.
In a related prosecution, PG&E was found guilty on six criminal counts at trial last year in San Francisco federal court: five violations of the Pipeline Safety Act and one count of misleading National Transportation Safety Bureau investigators.
Pitre said Tuesday that part of the motivation behind the current lawsuits is to allow investigators hired by the law firms to access evidence that Cal Fire and PG&E collected so that they can make an independent assessment of what caused the blazes. “We have serious concerns about relying on a company that has previously been convicted of misleading the NTSB,” Pitre said.
Also at Tuesday’s press conference, plaintiff Gregory Wilson described the three hours he and his wife spent taking shelter in their swimming pool as their Santa Rosa home burned down around them. Wilson, who spoke in a whisper, said his voice hasn’t recovered since that evening.
“It’s a nightmare that you can’t even imagine,” Wilson said. “We’re hoping [the lawsuits] can shed light on this thing so that nobody ever has to go through something like this.”