PG&E has billions to pay wildfire victims, but not if they miss Monday's deadline
As many as two-thirds of an estimated 100,000 people hit by devastating wildfires in recent years could be careening toward another disaster: Missing out on what could be substantial payments from PG&E to help cover their losses.
Most people eligible for payouts haven't yet filled out a three-page document that could provide life-changing financial help for a wide range of losses, even for those whose homes still stand, according to estimates by lawyers representing victims in the utility's bankruptcy case.
Due by 5 p.m. Monday, the claim forms are key to freeing up billions of dollars PG&E is required to set aside for wildfire victims in its evolving bankruptcy plan, which includes compensating people for damages, financial losses and even emotional distress caused from electricity-sparked fires. Instructions and a simple online form is available at restructuring.primeclerk.com/pge/EPOC-Index. For more information about the form, go to www.pgefireinfo.com.
“Some people think they'll get very little money,” said Jim Finn, who lost his Fountaingrove home in the 2017 Tubbs fire. “They think about those class-action lawsuit mailers that say you get a coupon and attorneys get millions. This is not like that. This is billions and billions of dollars for wildfire victims.”
While the exact pool of money being established for individuals who suffered losses in the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County is still under negotiation in federal court, the current competing proposals set aside between $8.4 billion and $14.5 billions for individuals.
Finn and a handful of other fire survivors have banded together in recent weeks to spread the word about the deadline out of fear too many people - and the ones most in need - will miss out on their chance.
They've pooled their money to buy social media ads and held meetings from the Sonoma Valley to Santa Rosa.
“It's just that important,” Finn said.
The eligible group includes those who lost homes and a wide range of others impacted by the fires, such as people forced to evacuate but able to return to standing homes, those who suffered hardships like lost pay and lost business, and individuals whose homes were left in decimated neighborhoods.
That fund will be completely separate from more than $11 billion the utility has already negotiated to compensate insurance companies for the costs those firms have paid out to claims from residents, renters and business owners.
Lawyers representing wildfire victims have raised the alarm that too many people will lose out - leaving PG&E off the hook - because they don't know about the claim form or chose not to file for a variety of reasons, such as the misconception that bankruptcy means the company can't pay its debts.
During an Oct. 7 hearing in federal bankruptcy court in San Francisco, attorney Steven Skikos raised the issue with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali that too many people could lose out.
“I'm not going to be in favor of having tens of thousands of people who aren't aware of what's going on in this case from being excluded,” Skikos said.
The judge said he would consider petitions to extend the deadline should lawyers representing wildfire victims file them, even after the deadline has passed. They have not as of Friday, according to court records.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January because of mounting liabilities from wildfires started by its electrical equipment - which the company estimated at $30 billion at that time. Bankruptcy allowed the company to begin a federally overseen process for paying off debts by liquidating some assets and tapping other financing sources, such as loans and equity commitments from investors.
“PG&E filed bankruptcy as a solvent debtor,” said Eric Goodman, an attorney with BakerHoestetler who represents the interests of wildfire victims in the bankruptcy proceedings. “No matter how you slice it, there will be billions and billions of dollars set aside for victims in this case. It's going to be an enormous sum of money.”
Before the utility sought bankruptcy protection, thousands of wildfire victims had already joined lawsuits against PG&E seeking compensation for damages incurred from the fires. Thousands more had opted out.
Bankruptcy both brought those lawsuits to a grinding halt and created an entirely separate process for victims - regardless of whether they were party to a lawsuit - to receive compensation for damages from fires caused by the utility's electrical system, which is required by the California constitution.
But not if they don't fill out the claim form.