Pretrial proceedings in nearly 100 lawsuits blaming PG&E for the October wildfires in Northern California should be coordinated in a single court in San Francisco.
That’s the order of a judge assigned by the state’s Chief Justice to recommend the best way to handle the flood of litigation arising from fires in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Yuba, Lake and Mendocino counties.
Each lawsuit accuses PG&E of poor power line maintenance and failing to prepare for high winds, causing blazes that burned nearly a quarter-million acres, destroyed 9,000 homes and killed 44 people, causing $9 billion in damage in the North Bay. Cal Fire investigators have yet to determine a cause.
In his nine-page ruling issued Thursday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow said that although details of the fires vary, the suits share legal issues making it necessary to organize them in one court, avoiding delays and the possibility of conflicting rulings.
Karnow said San Francisco is best, in part because it is easier for travelers to get to and has a more extensive electronic filing system than others. Also, he said it’s where the most cases were filed. He listed 96 lawsuits with 68 filed in San Francisco, where PG&E has its headquarters, 21 in Sonoma County and seven in Napa County. Once pretrial issues are resolved, he said individual lawsuits could be sent back to the counties where they were filed for trial.
“San Francisco County is best equipped to handle a single, coordinated proceeding,” Karnow said in his ruling.
The decision appeared to be a setback for PG&E, which sought to spread pretrial proceedings across five different counties, possibly to delay the litigation and generate inconsistent rulings, said Santa Rosa attorney Michael D. Green.
“This seem to be far more logical,” said Green, whose firm represents 300 wildfire clients suing PG&E. “One judge will look at the law the same way, regardless of whether it was the Atlas fire or the Tubbs fire.”
Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman, declined to comment on the ruling and said the utility’s legal papers speak for themselves.
“Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires,” Contreras said. “We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”
Ongoing state investigations into the causes of the fires have focused in part on damaged power equipment found at the origins of a number of the infernos.
At least one North Coast lawyer who sought to have the lawsuits coordinated in Sonoma County complained that driving to San Francisco would be a burden for clients who lost their homes or loved ones in the fires.
“This is the geographic center of all these fires and it’s most convenient to the thousands of people who were burned out,” said attorney Roy Miller, whose consortium represents a number of fire victims.
Miller and Green both attended a hearing before Karnow on Tuesday on the venue issue.
It was unclear if Karnow would be assigned. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was expected to approve the recommendation and pick a judge to oversee the lawsuits.