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PG&E Bankruptcy doesn’t end Camp Fire Claims

(February 28, 2019)  Though PG&E Corp. filed for Ch. 11 bankruptcy protection last month to escape creditors, its bankruptcy doesn’t end Camp Fire claims, according to a plaintiff’s attorney working in Chico, Calif.

“PG&E declared bankruptcy to try to hide from the liability of killing or injuring people in the Camp Fire,” said attorney Peter de la Cerda who represents several Camp Fire victims who suffered personal injury and/or business losses due to the fire.  “These cases don’t end with PG&E’s underhanded bankruptcy filing.  We are still pursuing them, even more aggressively now.”

PG&E Equipment probably caused Camp Fire

Evidence that PG&E was responsible for the Camp Fire continues to mountPG&E Corp. said today that its own equipment probably sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history.  The Wall Street Journal reported that for five years, PG&E repeatedly delayed a safety overhaul of a 100-year-old high-voltage transmission line that likely touched off the fire.  PG&E told federal regulators several times over the last five years that it had planned to replace the dangerously old equipment, but then failed, again and again, to follow through on those plans.

Years of Gross Negligence

The latest findings uncover years of what can only be seen as gross negligence by the nation’s largest utility company.  In 2013, PG&E told federal regulators that it planned to replace many of the towers, wires and hardware pieces on the line which likely triggered the Camp Fire – the Caribou-Palermo line.  PG&E proposed the overhaul project in 2014, in 2015, and again in 2016, pushing the start date back each year. Then the company said that it planned to start the work again, in June 2018.  Just four months after that last missed date, the deadly fire began.  PG&E today still has not begun the necessary line work.

Camp Fire Nov. 8, 2018

On Nov. 8, 2018, the deadliest wildfire in California history was touched off right where PG&E had promised to do the necessary maintenance work and then failed, for more than five years, to do that work.  On that date, winds kicked up before sunrise near Paradise, Calif., and then a Caribou-Palermo line wire snapped free, creating an electric spark that ignited the metal tower holding it.  According to PG&E, one of their workers spotted a quarter-acre fire right under that line a few minutes later.  In a matter of hours, the Camp Fire incinerated Paradise and killed 85 people.

PG&E’s repeated failures to address the Caribou-Palermo line were not previously reported.  Nor was it reported, before today, that PG&E has found further problems on the Caribou-Palermo line.  The company’s has now shut down that entire line and given no indication for when it might resume service.

PG&E Bankruptcy Filing

The Wall Street Journal reports that PG&E recorded a $10.5 billion charge in the fourth quarter related to the Camp Fire and an additional $1 billion in charges related to 2017 fires.  That might help PG&E executives justify the company’s recent bankruptcy filing to themselves, but there’s no moral justification for it.  PG&E did not have to declare bankruptcy.  Company executives chose that route, though they had offers on the table – one from a Warren Buffet group – to sell it all or part of it and avoid bankruptcy.

PG&E losses mount

PG&E also sounded a warning about not being able to continue as a going concern.  It reported a $6.9 billion earnings loss in 2018 that stemmed mostly from costs related to more than a dozen deadly wildfires across its service territory the last few years.  It had earned a profit of $1.6 billion in 2017.

After the company’s CEO resigned last month, interim CEO John Simon told WSJ he realized more had to be done to keep customers safe.

PG&E Bankruptcy doesn’t end Camp Fire Claims

None of that is any consolation to victims or survivors of the Camp Fire who suffered personal injury, or lost their homes, businesses, or their loved ones in a preventable fire.  There is, however, some consolation in knowing that PG&E Fire Lawsuits are still possible, even with PG&E’s bankruptcy filing.

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PG&E Bankruptcy victimizes Camp Fire Survivors Again

(Jan. 29, 2019)  PG&E announced today that it is declaring bankruptcy.  ABC News and every other major media outlet announced the bankruptcy could lead to higher utility bills. That was their main concern, apparently.  Most of them also noted, mostly as an afterthought, that the bankruptcy could adversely affect compensation for survivors of the Camp Fire that began Nov. 8, 2018 near Paradise, Calif.  Most failed to note that the PG&E bankruptcy victimizes Camp Fire survivors.  And what sort of precedent does it set for other corporations which – through inadequate, poorly-maintained equipment; negligence; and lack of customer care – are allowed to limit their liability with a simple declaration of bankruptcy?

PG&E’s Despicable Legacy

“Hiding behind the cloak of this bankruptcy filing is despicable,” said attorney David Matthews, who represents more than a hundred Camp Fire survivors.

PG&E did not need to declare bankruptcy, said Mr. Matthews, who noted the company had just seen two positive developments:  1.) The company had just been cleared of liability for the 2017 Tubbs Fire, though investigators have determined that its lines did start 18 other wildfires in October 2017, and California law makes utilities liable for damages from wildfires even if they weren’t negligent; and 2.)  Berkshire Hathaway, a Warren Buffet group, had just offered to buy PG&E and keep it out of bankruptcy.

Flagrant Attempt to Avoid Liability

“We take this as an injustice and a flagrant attempt to avoid liability which they’ve brought on themselves,” said Mr. Matthews. “This bankruptcy filing will not dampen or change our resolve to make them accountable to every single person’s loss, whether for personal injury or property damage.”

Mr. Matthews said the money PG&E will pay bankruptcy lawyers and trustees is money that should be going to Camp Fire victims.

PG&E is also using the bankruptcy filing in an attempt to end hundreds of long-term power contracts with wind and solar farms, which could damage the country’s renewable-energy industry.  PG&E  is contractually committed to spend $42 billion to buy electricity, more than half for wind and solar power to meet California’s mandated goals.  This bankruptcy also threatens to severely damage or bankrupt several companies providing that renewable-energy power.  The fights over PG&E’s obligations to the state of California and to those companies is just getting started with PG&E’s bankruptcy filing.

Corporations are Special People

Corporations, as the Supreme Court has ruled with awful decisions such as the so-called “Citizen’s United” – which legalized political bribery – are not only treated as people in the court system; they are treated as special people.  They are granted rights which actual people don’t have.  PG&E’s bankruptcy filing, should it hold, presents a perfect example: student loans are never forgiven, even by bankruptcy; but bad actors like PG&E can be forgiven their debts by bankruptcy, or they can at least have them partially forgiven.  So where’s the justice?

Some Compensation for Camp Fire Survivors

Mr. Matthews and other attorneys will continue the legal fight for Camp Fire survivors, but there is little doubt that the PG&E bankruptcy, if it is allowed, will limit, in some fashion, the compensation available to Camp Fire survivors for personal injuries, property damages, and business losses.

Camp Fire Blaze

The Camp Fire blaze that began November 8, 2018 killed at least 86 people and destroyed 15,000 homes in Paradise and surrounding communities. The cause is still under investigation, but suspicion has fallen hard on PG&E after it reported power line problems precisely where the fire began.

Camp Fire lawsuits accuse PG&E of inadequate maintenance, including not adequately trimming trees and clearing brush around electrical lines, and failing to shut off power when the fire risk was high.

Sadly, the bankruptcy filing immediately puts the Camp Fire lawsuits on hold and consolidates them in bankruptcy court, where legal experts opine that victims will probably receive less money. At the same time, legal experts also note that state officials will be involved in the bankruptcy.  Their presence could soften the blow that the PG&E bankruptcy delivers to wildfire victims.

“Our firm’s resolve has been strengthened by PG&E’s decision, its feeble attempt to escape liability,” said Mr. Matthews.  “We are more determined now to hold them accountable.”

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Camp Fire Suit: PG&E Equipment caused Blaze

Camp Fire Suit: PG&E Equipment caused Blaze

(Dec. 10, 2018)  A Camp Fire lawsuit filed Dec. 6 alleges that PG&E equipment caused the tragic blaze. The suit says a jumper cable and tower failure caused the fire which killed 85 people, severely burned 11o others, displaced more than 150,000 residents, and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, including most of the town of Paradise. Some 150,000 total acres of land were burned in the tragic blaze, the worst fire disaster in California’s history.

PG&E has been named as the principal defendant in several lawsuits filed thus far – including a recent Butte County filing – though Cal Fire has yet to draw any definite causation conclusion(s). The Sacramento Bee reported that a lawsuit filed last Friday attempts to better pinpoint the fire’s cause.  It focuses on a jumper cable that attorneys say came into contact with a steel tower and ignited the blaze.

Filed on behalf of 34 plaintiffs, the lawsuit petition says an extension arm that jutted from the tower was supposed to have kept the electrified jumper cable from making contact with the tower itself.  The lawsuit claims that that extension failed, which caused the cable to contact the tower and trigger the catastrophe.

The petition reads:  “Blazing hot molten materials dropped into the fine dead fuels below the conductor igniting the devastating Camp Fire.”

PG&E disclosed Problem before Blaze Began

A day after the fire destroyed most of Paradise, PG&E disclosed to the Public Utilities Commission that a 115-kilovolt line experienced a problem in the vicinity of where the Camp Fire was reported, about 15 minutes before the blaze began.  But PG&E offered no specifics about the problem.

Cal Fire allowed private investigators to inspect the tower, which is located in a remote area called Pulga, some 10 miles northeast of Paradise. But Cal Fire and PG&E crews had partially disassembled the tower before the inspection.  They had removed sections of the jumper cable and the tower extension, taking that part into custody.

NBC Bay Area said it was unclear what caused the cable to contact the tower.  Unidentified sources said a steel hook mounted on the extension may have failed, allowing the jumper line to come free and contact the tower.

The lawsuit faults “PG&E’s failure to properly inspect and maintain the tower.”  An attorney for the 34 plaintiffs said that PG&E does not use insulated lines between its transmission towers because of expense and weight.  He said insulated lines would have prevented the Camp Fire tragedy.

Towers Collapse

PG&E’s aging infrastructure is believed by many fire experts to be a central cause of the Camp Fire blaze.  In 2012, several PG&E transmission towers collapsed for reasons that are still uncertain, though their age is suspected as a probable cause.  The tower being investigated in the Camp Fire tragedy is believed to be at least 80 years old, and perhaps as old as 100.

PG&E fined

PG&E was fined $8.3 million in 2017 by the PUC for failing to properly maintain a12-kilovolt electrical line blamed for igniting the Butte Fire which killed two people and burned 921 homes and other buildings in Amador County in 2015.  PUC said an electrical line contacted a44-foot-tall pine tree that should have been identified by PG&E as hazardous and trimmed or removed.

PG&E linked to 2017 Wine Country Fires  

PG&E faces billions in claims from the wine country fires which killed 44 people in October 2017.  Cal Fire cited PG&E equipment problems for 16 of the wine country fires.  It has not yet assigned a cause for the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, the deadliest of the 2017 fires.

“Reclosers”Problems

PG&E’s “reclosers” continue to garner scrutiny from utility safety regulators. Reclosers are designed to remotely re-energize power lines after service disruptions, but their safety is in doubt.  Reclosers reportedly contributed to the 2017 Witch Fire in San Diego, but it remains uncertain whether they played a role in the 2017 wine country fires or the 2018 Camp Fire. PG&Ehas acknowledge problems with reclosers, stating publicly a company pledge to expand“our practice of disabling line reclosers and circuit breakers in high fire-risk areas during fire season.”

That pledge was part of a wide-ranging plan begun this year to improve fire safety.  Other measures included deliberate blackouts when conditions turn dry and winds dangerous. PG&E did shut off power to 60,000 customers earlier in 2018 as a safety measure, but just canceled a second planned shutdown across portions of northern California that included Butte County just before the fire ignited.

Tree Trimming Problems

Another lawsuit just filed in Butte County also focuses on PG&E’s tree-trimming practices, or its alleged failure to trim potentially dangerous trees and shrubs.  PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanor counts of criminal negligence in 1997 for failure to trim trees in Nevada County,which suffered the Traunter Fire as a result of that failure.

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