California Wildfire Cause

A firefighter holds a water hose while fighting the October 2017 Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa. Investigators say the deadly wildfire that killed 22 people in wine country was caused by a private electrical system, not embattled Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

A highly anticipated civil trial to decide whether PG&E is responsible for the 2017 Tubbs fire and the destruction it wrought will begin in January in San Francisco Superior Court, a judge ruled Monday.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection early this year under mounting liabilities from catastrophic wildfires sparked by its power equipment in 2017 and 2018, halting all civil lawsuits filed by fire victims against the utility and setting in motion a process for paying its debts.

The bankruptcy judge overseeing the case decided last month that a California jury should provide a crucial data point for how much PG&E should pay to victims of the Tubbs fire — a group of creditors with a contested claim against the utility.

Cal Fire investigators said that fire most likely was sparked by private power equipment at Calistoga-area property before it raced out of Napa County into Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, destroying more than 4,600 homes and killing 22 people. It was the lone major inferno in the 2017 Northern California firestorm not traced back by the state to PG&E equipment.

Attorneys representing Tubbs fire victims contend Cal Fire’s investigation got it wrong. They also claim the utility bears responsibility regardless of the cause due to an alleged poor record of grid maintenance and failing to prepare for high winds and other dangerous weather conditions when fires are more likely to grow out of control.

In August, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali said he would allow a select group of plaintiffs to pursue a fast-tracked trial over the Tubbs fire’s cause due to the dispute over PG&E’s liability in that fire. Montali agreed with lawyers representing Tubbs fire victims that a jury should hear their arguments.

PG&E has said Cal Fire’s findings clear the utility of responsibility for igniting the Tubbs fire. Earlier this month, the utility appealed Montali’s decision to allow the civil trial to move forward, arguing that it could cause unnecessary delays in proceedings already underway in federal bankruptcy court. The U.S. District Court judge overseeing those proceedings indicated he was not likely to stop a civil trial.

The trial, scheduled to start Jan. 7, is the only lawsuit against PG&E by wildfire victims to move forward while the utility is under bankruptcy protection, which put all civil actions against the utility on hold.

“The Tubbs people are going to get their day in court,” Steve Campora, one of the main lawyers representing plaintiffs in the civil trial, said after court Monday. “There is tons of evidence (implicating PG&E in the Tubbs fire) Cal Fire didn’t consider.”

PG&E tried to get the case moved from San Francisco to Sonoma County Superior Court, arguing in a motion that “jurors with a connection to the community directly impacted by the Tubbs fire are in a better position to assess the evidence than jurors with no connection to Sonoma County.”

But San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teri Jackson sided with the plaintiffs’ attorneys and kept the trial in San Francisco.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued San Francisco court has more resources, more judges and more sophisticated technology better able to handle a complex trial and that the location was better for both the lawyers and experts from PG&E, which is headquartered in the city.

The lawyers also noted that Sonoma County Superior Court has only four judges who hear civil trials and two of those judges also have other obligations, arguing “a case of this magnitude and with such need for expediency will place an enormous burden on the civil calendar in Sonoma County.”

The decision echoed an earlier order by a different judge. Before PG&E filed for bankruptcy early this year and halted civil proceedings, a San Francisco judge in January 2018 decided that lawsuits from hundreds — and eventually thousands — of people, businesses and governments suing PG&E for wildfire damages should be handled in San Francisco Superior Court.

Cal Fire investigators have blamed PG&E power equipment for igniting most of the catastrophic Northern California wildfires in the past two years, including in 2017, the deadly Atlas fire in Napa County, the Nuns fire in Sonoma County, the Redwood fire in Mendocino County, and in 2018, the Camp fire in Butte County.

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