PG&E is objecting to a judge’s decision that would allow a California jury to weigh whether the utility is liable for damages caused by the 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed some 4,600 homes in Sonoma and Napa counties and killed 22 people.
Attorneys for the utility on Wednesday filed a notice of appeal related to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali’s Aug. 16 order giving Tubbs fire plaintiffs a green light to move forward with their civil case against PG&E.
PG&E has sought to avoid that legal battle amid its bankruptcy case, pointing to Cal Fire’s conclusion this year that private power equipment, not PG&E’s, was to blame for the Tubbs fire, the state’s second-most destructive wildfire on record. A successful appeal would stave off that trial and limit the utility’s exposure to billions of dollars in liability in the Tubbs fire alone. But fire survivors say it would deny them their day in court — and the chance to press their case that Cal Fire got it wrong in its January report on the fire’s cause.
Will Abrams, who lost his Hidden Hills home in the Tubbs fire, said he felt the appeal was an example of PG&E “shirking responsibility and accountability” for the wildfires. Aside from Tubbs, most of those sparked during the historic 2017 firestorm were linked by Cal Fire to the utility’s power equipment.
“What’s most important is that wildfire survivors view this process as fair and just,” Abrams said. “By PG&E continuing to avoid responsibility, it does not give wildfire survivors the sense that this process is providing fairness and justice for the decision.”
The utility’s filing cites “new circumstances” stemming from a recommendation Montali made Aug. 21: that a federal district court judge take over the complex process of estimating wildfire victims’ claims.
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The utility wants the appeal to be heard by the same federal district court judge handling wildfire claims as part of the bankruptcy case.
“We remain committed to supporting wildfire victims and resolving their claims, and we are working hard to emerge from these complex Chapter 11 proceedings in advance of the June 30, 2020, statutory deadline,” said PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno. “Now that the District Court is handling all wildfire claims estimations, including with respect to the Tubbs fire, we are seeking that court’s guidance as to whether it agrees that it is most efficient to determine the cause of the Tubbs fire as part of those same proceedings.”
Robert Julian, an attorney for a group of plaintiffs seeking damages from PG&E, argued that Montali’s recommendation — that the federal district judge handle all fire claims — did not amount to “new circumstances” that call for revisiting whether a civil Tubbs fire trial should go forward.
He acknowledged that the recommendation came several days after the order but noted that Montali held hearings on the liability claims process and trial permission on the same day. He argued that the two judicial decisions were “all part of the same package.” He disputed PG&E’s contention that the playing field had been changed.
“If they were appealing on the basis of something that actually happened, that would be one thing,” Julian said. It was unclear what PG&E’s appeal would mean for the timing of the case, he said.