SAN FRANCISCO — A jury is set to hear arguments about whether PG&E’s equipment caused the deadly and destructive Tubbs Fire of 2017.
The trial will start on Jan. 7, 2020 in San Francisco, SF Superior Court Judge Teri Jackson decided Monday. While the goal is to determine – once and for all – whether PG&E caused the Tubbs Fire, attorneys for victims say their clients want more than that.
“For our clients who are elderly or who are sick, that they have some sense of finality, that they get an award to pay for the rebuilding of their house, to pay for the reforestation of their property, so that they can get closure before either their old age or their illness results in their premature death,” said Michael Kelly, an attorney representing Tubbs Fire victims.
While there are thousands of Tubbs Fire victims, there are only 18 plaintiffs in this particular lawsuit. Each is either elderly or seriously ill – or both. That’s why the judge granted them a speedy trial.
“The law provides that for certain clients who are over a certain age – over 70 years of age, (and) in this case there are some clients who are in their 90s – or who have health issues or health concerns, that are so serious that they may well be unable to move forward with their trial if their case is delayed, have the right to have what’s called a ‘preference.’ Essentially, they’re accelerated to the front of the line,” Kelly said.
Ignited on the night of Oct. 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 5,600 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties and killed 22 people. This was the fire that devoured entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.
PG&E is not disputing that its equipment caused many of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, but it stands by Cal Fire’s Tubbs Fire investigation, released in January 2019, which says that private equipment on private property started the Tubbs Fire. However, Tubbs Fire victims disagree.
“Cal Fire basically suggested that from an unknown source in an unknown place, with an unknown component, they say that the fire started on private property and then burned downhill into the face of 70 mph winds,” Kelly said. “We know that the origin of the fire actually happened somewhere else and burned uphill.”
Kelly and the other attorneys representing Tubbs Fire victims are preparing to make that case in front of a jury in state court.
When PG&E declared bankruptcy in January 2019, it froze all pending litigation against the company. A federal bankruptcy judge decided in August that Tubbs Fire victims could "unfreeze" their lawsuit and move forward with challenging the cause of the Tubbs Fire. Because it was the most deadly and destructive of the 2017 North Bay fires, whether PG&E caused the Tubbs Fire has big implications for the amount of money the utility may owe victims. That’s why the bankruptcy judge said he OK’d the lawsuit.
PG&E needs an approved plan to exit bankruptcy by June 30, 2020, otherwise, it can’t access a newly created state wildfire liability fund—a pool of money to help utilities pay the claims of victims of future wildfires caused by their equipment.
Meanwhile, Tubbs Fire victims remain in a kind of limbo.
“Most of the people who suffered losses of their homes, whether it was in Napa or Sonoma or Mendocino, no one – the vast majority – are not back to normal,” Kelly said. “Many people are waiting on the resolution of this case to get enough money to rebuild.”
The length of the trial depends on how it’s structured. With 18 plaintiffs, Jackson said she doesn’t want 18 separate trials, but she’s unsure whether it’s a good idea to try all 18 plaintiffs’ cases in one trial.
Attorneys for PG&E, victims and other stakeholders will collaborate on a plan for how the trial will take place, which is due to Jackson Sept. 26. They’re due to meet again in court Oct. 1.
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