SAN FRANCISCO — At a hearing Tuesday meant to hammer out the format of the upcoming Tubbs Fire trial, an attorney for PG&E raised concerns about pre-trial publicity. Specifically, he took issue with victims’ attorneys speaking with news media.
“Our concern is, given the immense media focus on this case, that this case needs to be litigated in this courtroom, not through the media,” Kevin Orsini, one of the attorneys representing PG&E, told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teri Jackson, who is presiding over the Tubbs Fire trial and planning leading up to it.
In recent weeks, attorneys for wildfire victims have told ABC10 and other news outlets why they think Cal Fire’s January 2019 final report on the Tubbs Fire is wrong. It concluded the fire started on private property, by privately owned electrical equipment. PG&E has stood by that report, denying their equipment caused the Tubbs Fire.
Victims’ attorneys, on the other hand, point out that Cal Fire’s investigation never determined which specific electrical component started the fire since so much of the equipment on that property was thoroughly burned. Victims’ attorneys have said they plan on proving in court that PG&E's equipment caused the Tubbs Fire.
In unofficially defending his and his co-counsel’s interviews with local news outlets, Frank Pitre, an attorney representing Tubbs Fire victims in this trial, said he wants to make sure that Tubbs Fire victims know they can – and should – file any claims for damage from the fire by the Oct. 21 deadline.
“There is public education that has to go into this in making sure people understand what a Cal Fire report says – but more importantly, what it does not say, so that people can have the opportunity to consult with lawyers as to whether or not to file a claim,” Pitre told Jackson. “Because there has been a lot of publicity by PG&E that they have no liability for the Tubbs Fire and that the Cal Fire report says there’s no causation. That is not what the Cal Fire report says, and (talking with news outlets) has been one way of at least keeping balance, so that people have an understanding of what breaks they may or may not have.”
Jackson declined to act immediately on Orsini’s request to “admonish” all parties to keep trial-related matters out of the news media.
“In order for this court to issue a gag, I believe I have to make a factual finding. I don’t have enough information at this time,” Jackson said, adding that she’s “willing to consider any motion that you wish for me to limit the right of individuals to speak outside this courtroom, but I think it has to be done under a procedural posture.”
She did, however, caution attorneys to be judicious in what they say.
“I want both sides to receive a fair trial,” Jackson said. “The more you talk about the case, the harder it’s going (to be) to find a jury and it’s going to take longer, and I know the goal of everyone is to try to get this case done efficiently and as fast as possible – but fairly – in order for resolution to be brought about in a federal court and in bankruptcy.”
Orsini indicated he intends on filing such a motion for the judge to consider – and soon.
Per the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Jackson set the length of the Tubbs Fire trial for eight weeks. Starting Jan. 7, the jury trial will resolve once and for all whether PG&E caused the Tubbs Fire—the deadliest and most destructive of the 2017 North Bay Fires.
If PG&E is found to have caused the fire and be liable for it, the trial will also include an estimation of damages for the 18 plaintiffs involved in this case. Those dollar figures could then be used to extrapolate estimates for all of the claims for damages stemming from the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and destroyed more than 5,600 structures.
"If you believe you have a claim against (the PG&E Corporation &/or the Pacific Gas and Electric Company) for personal injury or wrongful death, property damage, or other loss resulting from or in any way relating to the Northern California Fires, you or your authorized agent or attorney MUST file a Proof of Claim form for your Fire Claim prior to the (Oct. 21) Bar Date on the applicable Fire Claimant or Wildfire Subrogation Claimant Proof of Claim form," the site said, "even if you may be included in, or represented by, a purported class action, class suit, class Proof of Claim, or similar representative action filed against PG&E with respect to your Fire Claim.
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