(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.”