The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has enlisted a coalition of law firms with expertise in wildfire litigation to begin tracking legal suits and proceedings against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a move that comes as the county continues to explore filing its own lawsuit against the utility for taxpayer damages incurred during the devastating North Bay wildfires.
In a closed-door meeting Friday, county supervisors authorized California Fire Lawyers to represent the county’s interests during a Tuesday hearing in San Francisco Superior Court where the court will consider the possibility of consolidating myriad lawsuits stemming from the October fires.
The legal group, which includes Baron & Budd, Singleton Law Firm, and Dixon Diab & Chambers LLP, will make a special appearance on behalf of the county at the hearing in support of consolidation, said Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein.
Goldstein said the county has not yet decided whether it will file a legal complaint against PG&E as part of an effort to recover damages. The county continues to assess such costs, which could include loss of property taxes, county employee overtime and damages to infrastructure and natural resources such as parks and open spaces.
The causes of the fires remain under state investigation, with authorities scrutinizing toppled powerline equipment near the suspected origin of several of the blazes.
“We’re aware that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is discussing the potential for litigation, but our focus remains on doing everything we can to help communities here in Sonoma County rebuild and recover,” said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman.
Earlier this month, the county said it was facing a $21 million budget shortfall due to fire damage and costs.
The shortfall included a $10.7 million decline in revenue due to lost property taxes from destroyed homes, and another $10 million spent by the county on staff overtime and supplies.
Goldstein said the agreement between the county and California Fire Lawyers does not mean the county is a party in any of the lawsuits that have been filed by North Bay residents against PG&E. What is does mean is that the coalition of firms will make the county’s case in support of consolidating all the lawsuits.
“If the cases are not coordinated, you could have hearings all over the place,” Goldstein said. “By consolidating it, it’s much more effective and timely. There’s central coordination rather than having actions going on in four different counties with separate judges.”
Goldstein said San Francisco Superior Court has the legal infrastructure to handle “complex litigation,” a special category of cases requiring more intense judicial management. “I think they are in the best position to handle this in an expeditious way.”
As yet, no contract has been prepared to cover the legal services, Goldstein said, so the cost of the outside legal work to Sonoma County taxpayers was unclear Friday.
Goldstein said Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties have also asked California Fire Lawyers to “specially appear” on their behalf during the Jan. 2 hearing.
Deborah Dixon of San Diego-based Dixon Diab & Chambers said Friday said that California Fire Lawyers has been approached by the four counties to represent their interests in the procedural hearing. She said she could not discuss the details of the agreement with Sonoma County because of confidentiality.