A Santa Rosa couple on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against PG&E, claiming the utility company is responsible for the wildfire that destroyed their Coffey Park home and thousands of others in Sonoma County.
Wayne and Jennifer Harvell allege in the suit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court that PG&E failed to maintain and repair high- voltage power lines, which they say came into contact with drought-dry vegetation, starting the Tubbs fire and several others still burning in Wine Country.
The theory is one of many being examined by investigators searching for the cause of the fires, which started Oct. 8 amid extremely high winds across the region. It is far too early to know what sparked them, said Todd Derum, Cal Fire division chief for Sonoma County.
“We have a team investigating all the fires. They have not concluded their investigations,” Derum said. “We’re looking at all possibilities. There are a whole lot of things to look at.”
A PG&E spokesman, Donald Cutler, did not address specific allegations in the Harvell suit. He said the utility is focused on supporting firefighting efforts and restoring power and gas service as quickly as possible.
“We aren’t going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency,” Cutler said in an email.
The Tubbs fire spread under extreme wind from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, crossing Highway 101 and into the Harvells’ neighborhood, leveling their home of more than 30 years and destroying more than 2,900 others across the city.
Among other things, the Harvells allege PG&E was negligent for not de- energizing the lines under dangerous conditions. They seek unspecified monetary damages to pay for a new house and to compensate them for loss of “quiet enjoyment of property.”
A lawyer for the Harvells, Bill Robins of Santa Monica, said he believes the suit is the first against the utility stemming from the so-called Wine Country fires. He said hundreds of additional victims were expected to come forward and bring individual suits.
The Cal Fire investigation will address the possible role of its equipment in sparking the fire, PG&E told investors Friday in a report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Since the fire, PG&E has reported seven incidents of damage to its equipment, such as downed power lines and broken poles. It did not say whether they may have caused or contributed to the fire.
The utility reported it has $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses. It said its financial condition could be “materially affected” if the insurance is insufficient. Damages in Sonoma County alone have been pegged at $3 billion so far.
Last year, a Cal Fire investigation found PG&E was responsible for the 2015 Butte fire, which destroyed 549 homes and killed two people. The fire was sparked by a tree that fell into a power line near the Amador County community of Jackson. The California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $8.3 million for the fire, and the utility could be held liable for more than $1 billion in claims damages.
In 2015, regulators fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed eight people.
Burlingame attorney Frank Pitre, a partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, played a lead role in prosecuting civil cases against PG&E arising out of the 2015 Butte fire and the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, among others. He said he’s been receiving inquiries about the recent fires almost since Day One and is coordinating with three other firms experienced in this type of litigation to collect and organize relevant information, as well as mapping reports of blown transformers and arcing power lines from the point at which the fires started shortly after 9 p.m.
“They just go on and on and on until early in the morning,” Pitre said.
It’s too early to say what caused the fires, he said, but “I have a strong suspicion that there is going to be PG&E involvement in some of the fire,” he said.
Attorneys from outside the area are flocking to Santa Rosa in anticipation of high demand for legal representation, Pitre said.
Andrew Bradt, associate professor of law at Cal Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, said any degree of negligence on the part of PG&E in the current fires would trigger “a tidal wave” of civil cases, both state cases and federal suits on behalf of out-of-state plaintiffs who suffered damage or loss in the North Bay.
He said he considered it “risky” for Robins to start litigation with so much still uncertain, particularly when PG&E already is obligated to preserve all evidence if it so much as anticipates the possibility of litigation. And in this case, he added, the company “certainly should anticipate” that potential.
“This litigation is at its earliest stages, and if PG&E is a plausible defendant, it’s going to be a battle royale,” Bradt said.
The Harvells, like hundreds of others across Santa Rosa, were awakened early Oct. 9 by the smell of smoke and ran outside. Their Mocha Lane neighbors said the fire was burning on the other side of the freeway in Fountaingrove, so they grabbed their pets and a few belongings and drove to Sebastopol to escape what they feared would be heavy smoke only.
Little did they know the fire would shortly jump Highway 101, flattening their neighborhood.
In addition to losing the house where she raised her two sons, Jennifer Harvell lost her wedding dress and engagement ring.
“We never in a million years thought it would jump the highway,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-521-5250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.