Insurance will often rebuild the house or the building destroyed by fire but insurance can’t compensate for lives lost, for lost dreams and memories and sometimes for lost business.
We have covered the California wildfires extensively. [See California Wildfire Investigation page.] For many of the biggest and deadliest wildfires, electric utility providers are to blame.
Forensic science now allows investigators to determine the source of many fires. In California, utilities also have an obligation to self-report when they believe their equipment malfunctioned.
Camp Fire Wildfire Lawsuit
The flames have been out for just two weeks but dozens of lawsuits have already been filed. This post looks at one of those claims.
Experts say the November 2018 so-called Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire California history. That fire destroyed over 150,000 acres across parts of Butte and Plumas Counties. It is responsible for the total destruction of the town of Paradise. Almost 14,000 homes were destroyed as well as countless stores, sheds, barns and garages.
As of this writing, 88 people perished and over 20 remain unaccounted.
When the Camp fire began on November 8th, it began near the town of Pulga. Fanned by high winds and dry conditions, it expanded quickly. Racing west, it soon consumed the town of Paradise where many people died trying to flee the flames.
According to the lawsuit, “Tens of thousands of people, including Plaintiffs… are now displaced from their homes, and many are now forced to live in shelters, tents, or their cars. They are left not knowing where they will sleep, when they will have a roof over their heads again, or whether they will be able to rebuild their lives.”
Cause of the Camp Wildfire
This particular wildfire lawsuit was filed by Kevin Burnett and Leslie Moore, Sandra and Darwin Crabtree, Joseph Garfield, Robert Eldridge, and Benjamin Greenwald doing business as Greenwald Pest Defense. They all say the fire – and their subsequent losses – were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).
There are dozens of similar lawsuits filed throughout California.
PG&E is a huge public utility serving over 5 million customers in Northern and Central California. The company has $70 billion in assets. Those assets include transmission lines, high capacity transmission lines, power poles and transformers.
Supplying electricity is a dangerous. Utility providers across the country are held to very high standards.
Under California law, utilities must keep trees, debris and vegetation away from power lines. They also must maintain their lines and regularly inspect their equipment.
As a general rule, California utilities must keep lines at least 10 feet from any vegetation. Higher voltage lines require even more clearance.
PG&E’s duty doesn’t stop there. If there are dead or dying trees or trees leaning towards power lines, those must be removed or trimmed to prevent contact.
These are minimum standards. Utilities have a general duty to keep their lines away from combustible materials and prevent fires. That means making sure trees can’t fall on lines or having weak lines snap and fall to the ground or whip in the wind.
In 2014, the California Public Utilities Commission audited electrical utilities and required them to better address fire dangers. The Commission understood the hazards caused by global warming including greater risks of fires. To create incentives to get the work done, the Commission even said that PG&E could pass along the costs to rate payers.
PG&E and other utilities had no excuses for poor line maintenance.
In 2017, California was devastated by several deadly wildfires. Subsequent investigation tied those fires back to the utilities including PG&E. (17 of the last 21 large fires in PG&E’s service territory have been linked to the company.)
The 2017 fires brought enhanced line safety and maintenance requirements and dozens of lawsuits.
Did PG&E learn its lesson? No!
Wildfire Lawsuit – PG&E’s History of Fires
PG&E is no stranger to wildfires and poor line maintenance.
In 1994, PG&E’s failure to trim trees near its power lines caused the devastating Trauner Fire in Nevada County, California. Later a jury would find the utility guilty of 739 counts of criminal negligence for causing that fire. The PUC stepped in and gave the company a reprieve and allowed it to pay a $29 million fine and admit no wrongdoing.
A SF Gate investigative report said a CPUC investigation after the fire revealed that PG&E “diverted $77.6 million from its tree-trimming budget to other uses from 1987 to 1994. During that same period, it under spent authorized budgets for maintenance of its distribution system by $495 million, according to a confidential memo written by PUC staffers that was given to the commission in August 1998”
In other words, ratepayers were financing tree trimming efforts yet their monies were diverted to shareholders.
In 2008, PG&E’s inadequate repairs caused a deadly explosion in Rancho Cordova, California. This time the fine was $38 million.
Two years later, PG&E’s aging infrastructure caused a deadly gas explosion in San Bruno, California. Eight people perished.
The fine was in that case grew to a whopping $1.6 billion and the company was convicted of felony charges. The Public Utilities Commission said it was imposing that record fine to “ensure that nothing like this happens again.”
The same year the billion fine was imposed, another massive wildfire rocked California. The Butte fire destroyed hundreds of homes and killed two people. The cause? The state said poor vegetation management practices by PG&E.
Nothing seems to get PG&E’s attention.
We wrote extensively about the 2017 fires. In fact, we were on scene during the fires interviewing residents and line workers.
Consistent with our investigation, the complaint says,
“[The 2017 North Bay fires] were sparked by unsafe electrical infrastructure owned, operated and (improperly) maintained by PG&E. Investigation into the fires revealed a pattern of missteps, mismanagement, and misconduct by PG&E, including its failure to properly maintain its electrical infrastructure, its failure to inspect, manage, and/or control vegetation growth around its power lines and/or other electrical equipment, and its failure to adequately construct, manage, monitor, maintain, operate, repair, replace, and/or improve its power lines, poles, transformers, conductors, insulators, reclosers, and/or other electrical equipment in a safe manner, despite knowledge that its infrastructure was aging, unsafe, and vulnerable to weather and environmental conditions. Investigation and litigation is ongoing, but state agencies have repeatedly identified PG&E’s equipment as the cause of the fires. So far, Cal Fire investigators have determined that 16 of the fires involved PG&E’s electrical equipment, including four fires that were alone responsible for half of the North Bay Fire deaths (the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino County, the Atlas Fire in Napa County, originating fires contributing to the Nuns Fire in Sonoma County and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County), and the Cherokee Fire in Butte County.”
The exact cause of the 2018 Camp Fire has not yet been officially determined. As we have reported, however, initial reports once again point to PG&E. The lawsuit just filed says, “On November 8, 2018, at or around 6:29 a.m., a fire sparked by faulty PG&E equipment erupted in Pulga, California near Pulga Road and Camp Creek Road, near Jarbo Gap. Approximately 15 minutes later, another fire ignited near Concow, also sparked by faulty PG&E equipment.”
Minutes after the first call, firefighters found the fire was burning underneath the high tension lines belonging to PG&E. While fire fighters were fighting the blaze that would soon burn out of control for weeks, PG&E self-reported that it experienced a problem on that same 115,000 transmission line and had a damaged tower.
According to a media report, the day before the fire, the utility emailed a resident near the fire origination point letting her know that the high voltage line was “sparking.”
We believe that due to the dry conditions and high winds, PG&E should have immediately shut down the transmission line instead of allowing it to spark. Long term, the company should bury high voltage lines that traverse high fire risk areas.
Inexplicably, after the 2017 fires, PG&E developed de-energizing rules in case of high winds and “red flag” fire dangers. After the 2018 Camp Fire was well underway, PG&E tweeted that it would not proceed with a power shutoff as conditions didn’t warrant it!
If it were not so tragic because of the massive devastation, the utility’s decision to not shut down power would be laughable.
The Pulga Road and Jarbo Gap fires quickly combined into one and became the deadliest fire in California history.
The Camp fire spread so quickly that many people were able to escape with only the clothes on their backs. Others weren’t able to escape or died horrible deaths in their vehicles.
An audit of the utility’s infrastructure 5 years before the fires found that much of the utility’s transmission lines should be replaced with new, larger wiring. The aging small wires become brittle with age and can break causing a shower of sparks.
While the Camp Fire and 2017 North Bay fires were tragic, they were also preventable. Like most of the fraud and whistleblower cases we investigate, these tragedies happen when companies put profits before people.
Jamie Court, president of a consumer watchdog group, say PG&E is a “convicted felon” that only behaves when it has a police officer or firefighter watching over its shoulder. Court is referring to the company’s previous convictions for violating safety regulations and obstructing the investigation of the San Bruno explosions.
Damages from Wildfires
Nothing can bring back the 88 people who perished in the flames.
The homes and businesses can be rebuilt but even assuming there is insurance, those costs are just a small fraction of the devastation caused by the wildfires. Preventable fires.
One California insurance company, Merced, has already gone under after the fires of last month. They have only enough assets to pay perhaps 25 or 30 cents on the dollar. The fires are becoming so large now that even billion dollar insurance companies can’t keep up.
Many people had no time to secure valuables when they fled, that means important records, family heirlooms and photographs are destroyed forever.
Those that didn’t die suffered emotional trauma. Some suffered serious physical injuries as well.
Property values were all negatively affected.
The complete deforestation has resulted in environmental damage and now mudslides.
Businesses were destroyed. Even those with insurance will never get back all their profits or customers. Many of those customers now have no jobs or income.
Tens of thousands of people in many states were affected by the heavy smoke that lasted for days.
When we were at the scene of the Tubbs and Napa fires last year, each victim had their own tragic story to tell. Sleeping in their car because no hotel rooms were available. Lost pets. Lost dreams.
One of the plaintiffs (victims) in this lawsuit was quoted by Law360 as saying, “After a difficult and terrifying evacuation, we found out our home had been completely destroyed by the fire. The stress, the loss, are almost more than we can bear, and to then learn PG&E’s equipment likely caused the fire, we just feel broken. I just lost 35 years of my life.”
Other Causes of Wildfires
Is it possible to recover damages from every wildfire? No. Fires that are caused by lightning are true acts of God. And it isn’t possible to sue Mother Nature.
Kids playing with matches? Although they may be legally responsible, losses in those cases are also compensable only to the extent there is insurance. You can sue a 10 year old and his parents but chances are they don’t have billions of dollars to pay wildfire lawsuit claims.
Sometimes, however, other manmade losses are compensable. One example is railroad that lets a train operate with a faulty wheel that sparks and causes fires along the tracks. Or construction equipment allowed to idle while parked on tall grass.
Important Information for Victims of Wildfires and Whistleblowers Too
Unlike other law firms, we investigate cases from the inside out. That means always looking for insiders that have copies of critical memos or know where to look. We have no doubt that many of the current fires in Northern California were caused by faulty electrical equipment and lax maintenance standards.
Every day, we ask ourselves how many more people must lose their life, their home, their business or their livelihood because of a preventable wildfire? When utility customers start worrying more about customers and less about shareholders. Despite a $1.6 billion fine and felony conviction in 2015 after the San Bruno gas line explosion, we don’t think Pacific Gas & Electric learned a thing.
We advocate for criminal prosecutions of the executives of these utility companies. Just one CEO wearing an orange jumpsuit on the 5:00 o’clock news would result in massive remediation efforts across the nation within days.
Alas, we can dream but the civil justice system doesn’t let us decide who goes to jail. But we do have some tricks up our sleeve.
PG&E and most utility companies have insurance. If their poor maintenance causes you to lose your $500,000 home, it’s no skin off their back. Insurance will pay for it.
What insurance won’t pay for, however, are punitive damages. And actual money out of the utility’s pocket makes rate payers, investors and regulators furious. Collecting punitive damages means convincing a jury that the utility’s actions (inactions) were deliberate, reckless or intentional. That is where our experience in finding insiders becomes so helpful.
We are trial lawyers always willing to fight the good fight and take a punitive damages case to trial. Second only to having executives go to jail, punitive damages are the worst nightmare for greedy businesses.
If you are a homeowner, business owner or lost a loved one, you may be entitled to substantial monetary damages.
PG&E whistleblowers? There may not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you but you will have the peace of mind of knowing that dozens of men, women and children didn’t lose their lives in vain. We want to insure this never happens again and shining a light on corporate greed is one of the best methods to do that.
Think you can help us? Your community and we would sincerely appreciate several PG&E whistleblowers. (Yes, you can remain anonymous.) Contact attorney Brian Mahany by email at , online or by phone at .
PG&E or other utility company insiders (whistleblowers) with knowledge of poor line management or diversion of tree trimming funds? Call me direct at . Whistleblowers can remain anonymous.