Camp Fire | California Wildfire LawsuitBaum Hedlund2019-05-28T15:24:49-08:00
Camp Fire | California Wildfire Lawsuit
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Multiple reports indicate that Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) equipment may have sparked the 2018 Paradise Camp fire, now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
The Camp Fire started on Nov. 8, 2018, in the small town of Pulga. According to local media, PG&E sent an email on Nov. 7 to Pulga resident, Betsy Ann Cowley, informing her that the utility company needed to access her property due to power lines emitting sparks. Days later, fire investigators declared the power lines near Cowley’s property a crime scene.
Our lawyers are representing wildfire victims in lawsuits against the entities responsible for causing the fire. We are helping clients prepare insurance and FEMA claims forms at no cost. If an insurance payment, satisfactory to you, is achieved without the need for litigation, then there will be no attorneys’ fees charged against that payment. However, in the event your property insurance claims become disputed and require mediation, arbitration or litigation, we will represent you for a contingent fee.
Paradise wildfire evacuations displaced thousands of people from their homes in the cities and towns listed above, as well as some areas within Chico city limits.
As of February 2019, the death toll from the Camp Fire is 85 fatalities. Nearly 9,000 firefighters, including many from out-of-state, were called in to fight the wildfires in northern and southern California. Even with the extra help, the Camp Fire burned the town of Paradise to the ground and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. According to CNN, the fire burned more than 153,000 acres, destroyed more than 13,972 homes, 528 businesses and 4,293 other buildings.
How did the Camp Fire Start?
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) launched an investigation into PG&E after the utility company reported electrical malfunctions near ground zero for the Paradise fire.
The agency’s probe will focus on the “compliance of electric facilities with applicable rules and regulations in fire impacted areas,” a spokesperson for the agency said. “The CPUC staff investigations may include an inspection of the fire sites once Cal Fire allows access, as well as maintenance of facilities, vegetation management, and emergency preparedness and response.”
According to NBC News Bay Area, investigators believe the fire started due to a failed hook that held up a high-voltage power line on a nearly 100-year-old PG&E transmission tower. The fire reportedly started at the base of a transposition tower, which redistributes electricity on the system to balance the load and assure safety.
The transposition tower is equipped with two arms that hold the jumper—a part of the power line that shifts to another point at the top of the tower—and electrical insulators, which look like white discs.
Authorities say the fire started when a steel hook holding up the insulators fractured in high winds on the morning of Nov. 8.
Victims of the Camp fire have options to pursue compensation for any losses. Those with homeowner’s insurance that covers wildfires can file an insurance claim to repair, rebuild or replace their home and property. Camp fire victims may also file a claim for relief with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Very often, however, the only way wildfire victims can recover for all of their losses and harms is to enforce their rights through a lawsuit. A lawsuit against those responsible for causing the fire can occur even if you don’t have insurance coverage.
PG&E Named in Previous California Wildfire Lawsuits
State officials investigated PG&E for its role in previous wildfires in California. In June of 2018, Cal Fire issued a report blaming the utility company for several major 2017 wildfires in Northern California that caused dozens of deaths and destroyed thousands of structures.
According to Cal Fire, the Nuns, Atlas and Redwood fires in northern California were started by PG&E’s “electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles.” Cal Fire issued the report one month after the agency attributed four other wildfires, including the Napa wine country fires, to “trees coming into contact with power lines.”
The estimated insured losses from the October 2017 wildfires in Northern California are nearly $10 billion, per the California Department of Insurance. Many families filed lawsuits against PG&E for its role in the North Bay fires.
In 2017, state regulators ordered PG&E to pay an $8.3 million fine for failing to maintain a power line that sparked the 2015 Butte fire in Amador County that killed two people and destroyed more than 500 homes. Specifically, the fine was for failing to maintain a tree that contacted with a power line and for failing to report that one of its power lines caused the deadly blaze.
PG&E Has a Long History of Putting Profit Over People
The Camp Fire is far from an isolated incident. PG&E has a pattern of serious safety lapses:
San Francisco Gas Explosion (1981) – Occurred at a construction site at Sacramento and Battery Streets in San Francisco. A 16-inch gas main ruptured, causing an explosion. An estimated 30,000 residents were forced to evacuate as the line expelled gas that contained toxic PCBs. It took nine hours for workers to shut the gas line off.
Trauner Fire (1994) – A Nevada jury found PG&E guilty of 739 counts of criminal negligence based on a pattern of tree-trimming violations that caused a wildfire near the Sierra. Investigators found that the fire began when a 21,000-volt power line contacted with a tree limb that PG&E failed to trim. Additionally, investigators found hundreds of safety violations in the vicinity of the Trauner Fire, approximately 200 of which involved PG&E power lines contacting with vegetation. PG&E paid $29 million ($22.7 million settlement and $6 million in penalties). In 1998, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a report that revealed PG&E had diverted over $77 million ear marked for tree-trimming between 1987 and 1994. During the same period, the utility underspent its budget for maintenance of its distribution system by $495 million.
Fires at PG&E Mission Substation in San Francisco (1996 and 2003) – In 1996, a cable splice short circuited and burned cable insulation, resulting in a fire that opened a circuit breaker. PG&E customers lost power as a result of the blaze. At the time of the incident, the substation was unmanned and the fire was only discovered because an employee happened to stop at the substation to use the restroom.
In 2003, another fire at the Mission substation caused roughly a third of San Francisco residents to lose power. Like the 1996 fire, the incident occurred during reduced staffing hours.
According to the CPUC, “PG&E did not implement its own recommendations from its own investigation of the 1996 fire… Had PG&E implemented its 1996 investigation recommendations, CPSD believes the cable failure on December 20, 2003 would not have resulted in loss of service to customers.”
Pendola Fire (1999) – The Pendola Fire burned for 11 days, scorching 11,725 acres. A government investigation found that the fire started because a rotten pine fell on a power line. The investigation blamed PG&E for failing to remove the rotten tree. PG&E paid a $14.75 million settlement to the U.S. Forest Service in 2009 for its role in the Pendola Fire.
Sims Fire and the Freds Fire (2004) – The Sims Fire burned more than 4,000 acres in Trinity County, including areas of Six Rivers National Forest and Trinity National Forest. Investigators found the cause was a decaying tree falling on a transmission line. In court filings, the government said PG&E failed to remove a decaying tree that fell onto a 66,000-volt transmission line.
The Freds Fire burned more than 7,500 acres in El Dorado County. According to court filings, PG&E was negligent in supervising a contractor whose workers lost control of a large tree they were cutting down. The tree fell onto 21,000-volt line, sparking the fire. In total, PG&E and its contractors paid $29.5 million to settle federal lawsuits over the Sims and Freds Fires.
Power Fire (2004) – The Power Fire burned an estimated 17,000 acres in Amador County and the Eldorado National Forest. According to federal authorities, the blaze started when PG&E contractors left cigarettes burning during their break from clearing vegetation around the power lines.
A civil lawsuit accused PG&E and its contractor, Quanta Services Inc. of negligently hiring work crews who smoked during a period of extreme fire risk. Prosecutors said neither PG&E nor the subcontractor hired to clear the vegetation had any rules in place governing smoking in a wooded area during a period of extreme fire risk. Quanta paid $45 million to settle the suit.
Rancho Cordova Gas Explosion (2008) – A gas leak from a PG&E pipe caused natural gas explosion at a Rancho Cordova residence killed one person, injured 3 other residents, and damaged several area properties.
A government investigation revealed that PG&E’s incorrect repairs caused the gas leak. The report also noted that PG&E failed to send properly trained personnel to inspect the leak in a timely manner. In 2010, the CPUC filed charges against PG&E resulting in a $38 million fine.
Whiskey Fire (2008) – A pair of PG&E contractors failed to cut down a grey pine tree that contacted with a PG&E power line, sparking a blaze in the Mendocino National Forest that burned 7,800 acres and cost more than $5 million to extinguish.
PG&E and its contractors were required by law to keep tree branches away from power lines. Both PG&E and contractor Davey Tree Surgery paid $1.5 million to settle the case. Another contractor, ACTR Inc., paid $2.5 million.
San Bruno Gas Explosion (2010) – A PG&E gas pipe explosion killed eight people, injured 58 others and decimated an entire neighborhood in San Bruno. A government investigation found that PG&E’s poor pipeline management was to blame for the explosion.
In 2015, the CPUC ordered PG&E to pay a$1.6 billion fine for negligence in causing the explosion.CPUC President Michael J. Picker said of PG&E’s corporate culture: “Despite major public attention, ongoing CPUC investigations (OIIs) and rulemakings (OIRs) into PG&E’s actions and operations, including the investigations we voted on today, federal grand jury, and California Department of Justice investigation, continued safety lapses at PG&E continue to occur.”
“PG&E engaged in a ‘run to failure’ strategy whereby it deferred needed maintenance projects and changed the assessment method for several pipelines from ILI to the less informative ECDA approach – all to increase its profits even further beyond its already generous authorized rate of return, which averaged 11.2% between 1996 and 2010…Thus, it is evident that while the example of [gas transmission and storage] underfunding between 2008 and 2010 might be extreme, it was not an isolated incident; rather, it represents the culmination of PG&E management’s long standing policy to squeeze every nickel it could from PG&E gas operations and maintenance, regardless of the long term “run to failure” impacts. And PG&E has offered no evidence to the contrary.”
Carmel Gas Explosion (2014) – A Carmel home was destroyed due to a gas explosion caused by PG&E. Prior to the explosion, the utility was attempting to replace a gas line, but lacked records showing that the steel pipe had a plastic insert.
When PG&E crews dug into the pipe to perform the replacement, the plastic insert was pierced, allowing gas to leak into the residence. California’s Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $37.3 million in penalties over the incident. Additionally, PG&E was forced to pay the city of Carmel $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit over the gas explosion.
Butte Fire (2015) – The Butte Fire burned for 22 days across Amador and Calaveras Counties. Two people died, 921 structures were destroyed and more than 70,000 acres were burned. Like the Whiskey Fire, the Butte fire started when a grey pine tree came into contact with a PG&E power line.
North Bay Fires (2017) – The fires killed at least 44 people, injured numerous others, destroyed over 8,500 structures and burned over 245,000 acres. CalFire stated that PG&E equipment was responsible for sparking at least 16 of the fires. The agency’s report strongly suggested that violations of state fire safety codes could be involved in raising the possibility of criminal prosecution.
Camp Fire (2018) – The Camp Fire is still under investigation. The media reported that one day before the fire started, PG&E sent an email to a land owner in Pulga about “problems with sparks” on high power lines, citing the need for workers to enter the land owner’s property and work on the lines. PG&E has said the line in question was de-energized and not operational at the time the Camp Fire started.
However, according to radio transmissions reviewed by the Bay Area News Group, a different transmission line malfunction may have caused sparks that started the wildfire. In a filing to the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E said it detected an issue on a transmission line 15 minutes before the first reports of the Camp Fire came in.
Of note, in the days before the Camp Fire, PG&E sent a notification to customers that it might be forced to cut power due to forecasts of “localized extreme weather.” By the afternoon of Nov. 8, however, the utility told the CPUC that “weather conditions had improved, and PG&E no longer anticipated the need to proactively de-energize.”
In October, PG&E made the decision to cut power to 60,000 customers citing an extreme risk for wildfires. This was the first time the utility had cut electricity as part of its wildfire safety program.
“Any wildfire started by reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines” and/or “any inaccurate, slow, or failed reporting of information about any wildfire by PG&E” were among the areas of interest cited by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup.
Judge Alsup’s order appears to focus on the North Bay Fires in 2017 and the Camp Fire, as it asks for “[a]n accurate and complete statement of the role, if any, of PG&E in causing and reporting the recent Camp Fire in Butte County and all other wildfires in California since the judgment.”
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to maintain its dividend payments suspended until the company trims trees around power lines in accordance with state requirements. Judge Alsup said he wants to reform PG&E’s “dismal” management that led to several wildfires over the last few years.
In a report issued today, the utility acknowledged that its equipment probably caused the Camp wildfire. While an official investigation has not yet been completed, PG&E said today that it “is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire.”
The report, which comes after PG&E filed for bankruptcy last month, noted that the utility recorded a $10.5 billion charge in anticipation of damage claims stemming from the deadliest wildfire in California history.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. In response to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, the court has entered a routine stay of all proceedings by creditors, including the victims of the fire.
Federal Judge William Alsup has issued tentative findings regarding the 2017 and 2018 California wildfires. In his findings, Judge Alsup wrote that the recurring cause of the devastating fires linked to PG&E is “the susceptibility of PG&E’s distribution lines to trees or limbs falling onto them during high-wind events.” An additional factor is the lack of insulation for PG&E power conductors.
Those falling limbs and branches can cause conductors to push together, sending electrical sparks to the extremely dry vegetation below, increasing the risk of a massive fire. Alsup’s findings indicate that the major fire risks are linked to distribution lines that have 35- to 50-foot single poles, which run through rural-area vegetation.
Facing mounting liabilities, an increasing number of lawsuits, and the prospect of additional fines, PG&E announced its plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Following the announcement, PG&E stock dropped dramatically by 48 percent. Meanwhile, the utility’s Chief Executive Geisha Williams also announced plans to step down.
When it made its announcement, PG&E said it faces at least $17 billion in potential liabilities following the 2017 and 2018 California wildfires. Officials have already linked 17 of 2017’s wildfires to PG&E and are still investigating the 2018 fires. The utility previously acknowledged that it experienced problems with its equipment in the area at around the time the Camp fire began.
PG&E gave its 15-day notice for filing bankruptcy and is expected to file on Jan. 29. It had previously filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. Lawyers at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman are taking the bankruptcy into consideration.
Noting that PG&E had been convicted in 2016 of “knowingly and willfully violating safety standards and obstructing an investigation” by officials, Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility’s probation following the San Bruno pipeline explosion, proposed additional conditions on PG&E’s probation. In issuing his proposal, Judge Alsup pointed out that Cal Fire has blamed numerous wildfires from the 2017 California wildfire season on PG&E and is still investigating the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.
Alsup referenced PG&E’s history of falsifying inspection reports when he proposed the conditions. Those conditions include PG&E re-inspecting all of its electrical grid, removing or trimming all vegetation that could contact its power lines or equipment, fixing conductors that might swing together, fixing any other conditions that have previously contributed to wildfires, documenting inspections and work done, and cutting electrical power to any parts of its grid determined unsafe under wind conditions.
Alsup wrote that the conditions are intended to eliminate the risk of wildfires caused by PG&E, and further noted that though the interruption to electrical service would be an inconvenience, that inconvenience would be minor compared to the potential death and destruction from “PG&E-inflicted wildfires.”
PG&E submitted a proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) asking for nearly $2 billion in rate hikes from consumers. While roughly half of the funds will be earmarked for wildfire safety, the proposal does not include money for potential claims arising from the 2017 and 2018 California wildfires, according to PG&E.
The proposal asks for $1.1 billion in revenue for 2020, including $576 million for the Community Wildfire Safety Program, $273 million for liability insurance, and $209 million for core gas and electric operations. Additionally, PG&E seeks $454 million in 2021 and $486 million in 2022. If the CPUC approves the proposal, typical residential customers would see their monthly bill increase by more than $10 a month.
The proposal came as a shock to many Northern California customers, some of whom filed lawsuits against the utility company alleging negligence and poor maintenance caused the 2018 Camp Fire. According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average electricity bill for California residents last year was $101.49 per month, leaving many wondering why they should pay even more for a “service” that has resulted in billions of dollars in damages over just the past two years.
PG&E previously said in a filing with the Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC) that it does not have enough insurance to cover potential liability tied to the Camp Fire. “While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, if the Utility’s equipment is determined to be the cause, the Utility could be subject to significant liability in excess of insurance coverage that would be expected to have a material impact on PG&E Corporation’s and the Utility’s financial condition, results of operations, liquidity, and cash flows,” the utility said in its filing with the SEC.
California Wildfire Attorneys Investigating PG&E Fire
Similarly, senior partner and board-certified trial lawyer Ronald L.M. Goldman has extensive experience litigating complex personal injury and wrongful death cases stemming from mass disasters. Michael Baum, the firm’s managing partner, first litigated fire cases in 1987, when we was on the team that represented many of the guests who died in the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico, one of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history. Over the past 30+ years, Michael has successfully led the firm through thousands of wrongful death and personal injury cases. Cara J. Luther, an attorney with 30 years of experience handling catastrophic cases, worked for the insurance industry before becoming a lawyer. She is assisting our clients with insurance matters.
The experienced attorneys at Baum Hedlund Law have also teamed up with renowned environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., respected class action and complex litigation attorney Brian R. Strange, and nationally known fire experts Michael A. Vergon, former ATF Senior Special Agent, and James M. Finneran, Certified Fire Investigator and a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator, to further investigate PG&E for their part in the Butte fire.
Our attorneys are dedicated to holding all responsible parties accountable for their role(s) in starting the Paradise fire. If you lost a home, were injured, or had a loved one perish in the PG&E California fire, contact the California law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman or call us at 310-207-3233 to speak with a California wildfire lawyer today.