North Bay inferno victims sue PG&E
SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was jolted Tuesday by a fresh round of lawsuits from victims of the lethal North Bay infernos, the latest challenge to the utility as state agencies look into what caused the catastrophe.
PG&E put profits before public safety, the lawsuits allege, and the utility also disregarded mandatory safety practices and foreseeable hazardous risks associated with the company’s infrastructure by failing to identify, inspect, manage and control vegetation growth near its power lines and other electrical equipment, according to the litigation.
“This calamity was preventable,” Frank Pitre, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the new litigation, said Tuesday during an announcement of the lawsuits.
The October wildfires in the Wine Country and nearby areas killed 43 people and torched at least 245,000 acres in six counties.
Investigators from CalFire and the state Public Utilities Commission have yet to determine what unleashed the infernos.
“We are aware that lawsuits have been filed,” PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler said Tuesday. “There has been no determination on the causes of the fires.”
PG&E has $800 million in insurance to cover any liabilities for the Wine Country fires.
The utility stated on a recent conference call with analysts that it would ask the state PUC to authorize it to boost customers’ monthly electricity bills if actual North Bay fire expenses exceed that coverage.
San Francisco-based PG&E has been in hot water in recent years in the wake of a September 2010 explosion of a gas pipeline that killed eight people and destroyed a San Bruno neighborhood.
In April 2015, the state Public Utilities Commission imposed a $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E, the largest such financial punishment ever levied on an American utility, for causing the fatal blast. In August 2016, a federal grand jury found PG&E guilty for crimes it committed before and after the San Bruno explosion, including an attempt by the utility to obstruct a National Transportation Safety Board probe into the blast.
Some of the claims in the litigation evoked memories of accusations that were at the heart of the successful criminal prosecution of the utility. PG&E’s flawed record-keeping and shoddy maintenance of its gas system caused the San Bruno explosion, the NTSB determined.
“This case is about PG&E’s pattern of criminal conduct and making deliberate choices,” Hallie Hoffman, an assistant U.S. attorney, told a federal in June 2016 during opening arguments. “This case is about deliberate and illegal choices, and about the cover-up of those choices.”
In January, PG&E became a convicted felon when a federal judge sentenced the utility on six criminal convictions issued by the jury.
“No amount of advertising, no number of criminal convictions, including misleading the NTSB, seems to change a culture at PG&E that puts profits ahead of safety,” Pitre said.
During the 12 months that ended in September, PG&E captured $2.06 billion in profits on revenue of $18.04 billion.
Gregory Wilson, a Santa Rosa resident, recalled how he and his wife plunged into their backyard swimming pool to escape the heat, flames and drifting embers and remained in the water for hours while the flames consumed their home.
“We jumped in the pool to survive,” Wilson, a victim of lengthy smoke inhalation, whispered during the presentation. “For the next three hours, we watched everything burn around us. It’s a nightmare that you can’t even imagine.”