As destructive wildfires continue to rage across western California, many are wondering if there is someone or something, in particular, to blame for one of the worst forest fire seasons in the state’s history. The fires are still burning and over 8,000 homes have been consumed.
Last week, multiple lawsuits were filed against the utilities giant Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) for its potential role in igniting some of these fires. If the company is found liable, it could be on the hook not only for fines paid to the state but also personal injury and private property damage suits as well. Let’s take a closer look at the legal ramifications of this implication.
Why is PG&E Responsible for Wildfire Damages?
The state-regulated agency CAL FIRE is currently investigating PG&E over suspicions that downed power lines, a transformer explosion, and a failure to maintain safe vegetation around equipment may have caused some of the fires this season. The agency determines ignition causes and total spread and then submits its findings to the California state government with recommendations for sanctioning. It expects to complete the investigation within six months to a year.
A Surge of Lawsuits is Expected
In addition to CAL FIRE’s investigation, several homeowners have filed lawsuits against PG&E in the last few weeks. It is highly likely that these individual lawsuits will be resolved before CAL FIRE reaches its conclusions, in which case those details may inform the findings to some degree.
PG&E may be found guilty of inverse condemnation, which means that a company acting as an agent for the government caused property to be damaged or destroyed. If proven, a homeowner would be able to sue for noneconomic losses such as personal injury, lost wages, and emotional distress in addition to property damages.
Potential Legal Impact
In its worst nightmare, PG&E may be responsible for paying hundreds of millions of dollars or more in civil lawsuits brought by those who have been injured, killed, or lost their homes or businesses. State ordered fines would be the least of its worries.
Damages to this degree could result in the end of PG&E altogether, creating an opportunity for smaller utilities companies to vie for government public works contracts. Due to its massive size and numerous mistakes over the years, some people are hoping this will happen. Democratic state Senator Jerry Hill is one of them. He told local papers that he would push for the division of PG&E if it is found to be liable, stating “They’ve crossed the line too many times. They need to be dissolved in some way, split.”
PG&E is not the first utility provider in California to be slapped with fines and lawsuits for their roles in starting wildfires. For example, Cox Communications was fined $2 million in 2007 for contributing to the Guejito fire. SCE paid out $37 million in fines for the 2007 Malibu fire. We’ll simply have to wait for the embers to cool before we know what will happen with PG&E.
Quality Legal Representation Matters
Going up against a national public works giant is no simple undertaking. If you or a loved one has experienced property damage or personal injury due to recent California wildfires, Hales & Associates, A Professional Law Corporation can help. Contact our Murrieta office today at (951) 489-3320 to schedule a free consultation with a highly trusted and experienced personal injury attorney.