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Wildfire victim trust sues former PG&E executives for 2017 North Bay fires, 2018 Camp fire

A trust representing more than 61,000 wildfire victims from Sonoma County and other Northern California communities is suing former PG&E executives and board members, arguing they should be held responsible for destructive fires sparked in 2017 and 2018 by the utility’s electric equipment.

The lawsuit, which seeks to increase the payout to fire victims who approved a $13.5 billion settlement with PG&E in 2019, alleges 13 top utility executives are personally to blame for the wildfires ignited by their equipment because they failed to ensure their electric grids were capable of operating safely during dangerous fire weather.

“The Defendants put profits before safety, which has resulted in the two separate catastrophic events which are the subject of this lawsuit,” according to the 60-page complaint filed Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court.

PG&E issued a statement acknowledging the lawsuit without commenting directly on the allegations. “We remain focused on reducing wildfire risk across our service area and making our electric system more resilient to the climate-driven challenges we all face in California,” the company said.

Court-appointed trustee John Trotter, a retired state appeals court judge overseeing the settlement, filed the lawsuit on behalf of victims.

Trotter alleges the wildfires were a direct result of the defendants’ breach of their fiduciary duties to act in the best interests of PG&E. Central to his claim is that PG&E’s failure to implement a power shut-off program prior to a dry, inland windstorm predicted days in advance in October 2017 created the circumstances in which the utility’s electric system sparked fires across Northern California, burning across more than 245,000 acres and killing at least 44 people from Sonoma County to the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Power shut-off programs, long established in Southern California, were already necessary in 2017 because at that time the company “was six years behind on its vegetation management program,” according to the complaint.

PG&E also failed to ensure its equipment was sound through inspections and record-keeping that might have spotted the wear on a 100-year-old hook that broke on a long-range transmission tower in Butte County during a November 2018 windstorm. The malfunction sent sparks into dry vegetation, igniting a historically deadly fire that killed 86 people and destroyed most of the town of Paradise.

“A corporation is a faceless entity, but PG&E is run by officers and directors,” said Frank Pitre, a lead attorney for the plaintiff. “They’re the ones who establish the policies and practices, procedures, the safety measures that are implemented to minimize the catastrophic risk of wildfire.”

A successful lawsuit would add to the $13.5 billion meted out in PG&E’s bankruptcy case to compensate people and businesses with losses and traumas from the 2017 and 2018 fires as well as a 2015 blaze in Butte County. In Sonoma County, the fires destroyed more than 5,330 homes.

The trust is still finalizing claims for the multibillion-dollar settlement and payouts have not yet reached any of the individual wildfire victims.

The lawsuit comes just two days before the Friday deadline for wildfire victims to finalize their claims with the trust.

Santa Rosa resident Jeff Okrepkie, whose Coffey Park rental home was destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs fire, said that he and many other fire victims have been revisiting the trauma of their fiery escapes during the blazes and their enormous losses while compiling the vast documentation needed to be eligible for compensation.

News of the lawsuit raised more questions than answers, but Okrepkie said that he hoped it would ultimately provide another avenue to hold PG&E accountable for its role in the fires and help improve the lives of victims.

“I personally just want everyone to get compensated and I want PG&E to do a better job taking care of their clients, and that’s not just low rates, that’s making it safer,” Okrepkie said.

As of Wednesday, 61,549 claims had been filed, including 19,380 from the North Bay fires and 39,060 from the 2018 Camp fire. The deadline to complete the claims process is Friday.

In 2019, PG&E agreed to pay fire victims $6.75 billion in cash and another $6.75 billion in stock. As part of the settlement, the trust representing fire victims retained the right to file lawsuits against PG&E executives as individuals to seek additional compensation.

If the trust wins its lawsuit, any additional payments to fire victims would come from PG&E insurance, not the personal holdings of the utility’s former executives. Pitre estimated the company’s policies could be valued somewhere between $200 million and $400 million.

“This was an expected step by the trust whose obligation it was to recover any and all assets that were available to it,” Pitre said.

If the lawsuit is successful, it could help make up for a roughly $1 billion shortfall that the wildfire victims' trust is currently facing because half the promised settlement consisted of a PG&E settlement that is currently worth less than had been hoped when the deal was struck toward the end of 2019.

Trotter acknowledged the problem in a Jan. 26 letter to the wildfire victims — many of whom had balked at accepting the terms of a settlement that required half of the promised $13.5 billion to consist of stock in a company with a history of negligence.

But none of the PG&E shares have been sold by the trust so far, leaving time for the stock to rebound.

PG&E shares, which closed at $11.41 Wednesday, have ranged from a low of $3.55 to $25.19 during the past two tumultuous years.

“I’ve always been an optimist in the shares of stock,” Pitre said. “I believe they’ll yield at or near the $6.75 billion that’s needed to help pay fire victims.”

The defendants have all since left the company, including high-profile PG&E Chief Executive Officer and President Geisha Williams, who served from 2016 to 2019 and was the primary face of the company during the devastating 2017 and 2018 fires.

The other defendants are former top PG&E officers and directors Lewis Chew, Anthony F. Earley, Jr., Fred J. Fowler, Maryellen C. Herringer, Christopher P Johnson, Richard C. Kelley, Roger H. Kimmel, Richard A. Meserve, Forrest E. Miller, Barbara L. Rambo, Anne Shen Smith and Barry Lawson Williams.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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