PG&E still lacks estimate on compensating wildfire victims
SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas & Electric Corp.'s top financial executives said during a bankruptcy meeting Monday they still haven't determined when the utility can start compensating victims of recent wildfires started by the utility's equipment.
Victims' lawyers questioned PG&E executives during the meeting in San Francisco between the utility in bankruptcy court and its creditors.
The victims' lawyers wanted to know when the utility would file its plan to emerge from bankruptcy and pay the billions of dollars in claims pending against it. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, saying it faced at least $13 billion in legal claims from wildfire victims.
PG&E Chief Financial Officer Jason Wells said the utility doesn't yet know when it will file that plan.
Wells said the company recognizes it must act as quickly as possible, but said a lot of work remains to be done before PG&E can file its plan, including working with state lawmakers to pass new laws limiting its future wildfire liabilities.
"We understand the impact these fires have on their communities," Wells said.
Wells said PG&E needs lawmakers to lessen the utility's wildfire liability to attract investors and financing to help pay the pending claims. California requires utilities to pay for wildfire damages if their equipment is the cause even if the companies acted responsibly and took proper care of their equipment.
"It's frustrating," victims' attorney Jerry Singleton said of waiting for PG&E's plan. Singleton represented hundreds of wine country residents who lost their homes in an October 2017 wildfire. State fire officials say a homeowner's private electrical system caused that fire, not PG&E. Nevertheless, Singleton and several other attorneys intend to argue in court that the state fire officials were wrong and PG&E is to blame.
PG&E's equipment is the prime suspect in the cause of the Northern California fire in November that wiped out the town of Paradise, California. On Monday, Wells confirmed that the Butte County district attorney is deciding whether to the charge the utility with criminal negligence.
Internal emails exchanged between a Butte County prosecutor and lawyers for PG&E and wildfire victims confirming the criminal probe were also filed in bankruptcy court on April 15. Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey didn't return a call Monday. A criminal case could slow PG&E's emergence from bankruptcy.
Wells also said on Monday that PG&E was putting together an emergency fund to compensate uninsured victims of the Northern California fire.