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Know Your Rights

California law prohibits lawyers or others acting on behalf of a lawyer from:

— Soliciting clients at an accident scene, at a hospital, or on the way to a hospital.

— Soliciting clients who, due to their physical, emotional or mental state, may not be able to have reasonable judgment about the hiring of an attorney .

— Seeking clients by mail unless the letter and envelope are clearly labeled as an advertisement.

— Promising a particular outcome from legal representation.

In the wake of the fires, there is also the risk of victims being approached by people posing as attorneys. Consumers should determine if they are legitimate and licensed to provide legal services. Before hiring an attorney, look up their name or State Bar number on the State Bar website — www.calbar.ca.gov — to check the status of their license to practice law and whether they have any record of discipline.

Source: State Bar of California


Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Enrique Lopez heard the pitch before — PG&E is to blame for the October firestorm that destroyed his Santa Rosa home. And the massive San Francisco utility should pay for it.

The Coffey Park resident listened to the presentation in a hotel ballroom as a group of lawyers from San Diego explained over free pizza their plans to sue for uninsured losses expected to climb into the billions of dollars.

They handed out contingency agreements and asked each of the dozen or so fire victims for their business.

Lopez, a vineyard manager who has been to at least one other similar meeting, decided to keep looking.

“We’re shopping around,” said Lopez as he stood in a Santa Rosa Courtyard Marriott hallway with his partner, disability attorney Cherri Alcantara. “We still haven’t found anyone.”

Lopez is among the hundreds of fire victims considering their legal options in the wake of Northern California fires that burned 245,000 acres in six counties, killed 44 people and caused more than $9 billion in damage claims.

Although Cal Fire says it may be months before it knows how the fires started, lawyers from across the country are already courting fire victims in a high-stakes race to sign them up for what many believe will be a record payout. By comparison, San Diego Gas & Electric paid more than $2 billion for 2007 wildfires that destroyed more than 1,200 homes and killed two people. And PG&E faces more than $1 billion in claims after Cal Fire investigators found it responsible for the 2015 Butte fire, which destroyed 549 homes and also killed two people.

Damages could surpass claims

Gerald Singleton, a San Diego attorney who represents about 500 Napa and Sonoma county wildfire clients in two separate lawsuits, said damages in the Northern California fires could far exceed insurance claims, topping out at $20 billion.

“These fires will absolutely dwarf anything else,” Singleton said. “It will be the largest fire case that’s ever happened. Hopefully, there’ll never be anything bigger.”

He and other lawyers will help people recoup uninsured losses but also go after noneconomic damage, such as emotional distress from fleeing flames and the trauma of being displaced.

Individual settlements for those burned or killed could go into the millions, said another Southern California wildfire attorney, Jim Frantz, who is on a steering committee for lawsuits following the 2015 Porter Ranch natural gas leak outside Los Angeles. He compared North Bay fire lawsuits to litigation following the 2010 BP oil spill, which settled for $20.8 billion.

“It’s the largest man-made disaster in the United States,” Frantz said. “Porter Ranch was terrible. The BP oil spill was bad. This is worse. It’s taken people out of their homes. And the damages will be record-setting.”

The lawyers themselves will take between 33 and 40 percent of any money won in court, plus additional funds to cover their legal and investigative costs. Some charge more if a case goes to trial, billing up to $750 an hour for their time.

Fire victims now are facing an array of decisions as attorneys vie for their business. The State Bar of California warned the public to watch out for fraud, including people posing as lawyers and attorneys who make false promises or inappropriate solicitations.

Clients will be asked to sign agreements that authorize attorneys to file a claim on their behalf. The contracts detail how any money will be divided, who is responsible for the costs of litigation, and the rights of both client and attorney.

“Look closely at your contract,” said Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller, who is representing several hundred wildfire cases with a team of lawyers. “People need to know what they are signing.”

Miller urges people to read the fine print for hidden escalator clauses that trigger larger shares for lawyers and can entitle lawyers to be paid even if they quit or get fired.

Court must establish liability

Before anyone gets a dime, a judge must establish liability for the fires that flared the night of Oct. 8. Dozens of lawsuits representing about 350 plaintiffs so far have been filed against PG&E, alleging the blaze was sparked by trees that fell onto poorly maintained power lines during high winds. The Tubbs fire — which became the most damaging wildfire in state history — raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, wiping out homes in Fountaingrove and Larkfield-Wikiup before jumping Highway 101 and leveling Coffey Park. All told, Sonoma County fires burned 137 square miles, destroyed 5,130 houses and killed 24 people.

PG&E has notified state regulators about damaged power poles and downed lines in areas near the origins of the wildfires. But in a court filing last month, it contended that private electrical equipment at a property north of Calistoga may have caused the Tubbs fire. The official investigation is ongoing.

“We are aware that lawsuits have been filed,” a PG&E spokesman said in an email. “There has been no determination on the causes of the fires. We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said the cause could be announced some time next year.

It is unclear what would happen if PG&E is not found liable for the fires. Civil lawsuits could continue against the utility or shift to new defendants, such as subcontractors or property owners.

One of the first legal battles will play out Jan. 2 when lawyers argue over whether to consolidate the hundreds of cases in San Francisco or Sonoma County courts — the two main places where lawsuits have been filed.

Lawyers promoting their services

In the meantime, attorneys are converging on the North Bay, promoting their services in full-page newspaper ads and in town hall-style meetings. They are sending their own investigators into the field, documenting losses with drones and personalized videos while gathering evidence and witness statements they say points to a cause.

Standing before the small Courtyard Marriott crowd this week clad in jeans and cowboy boots, another San Diego-based attorney, Christopher Sieglock, made his pitch, explaining a half-dozen types of claims he will pursue for people including payment for “annoyance and discomfort” and the destruction of prized trees, which can be worth $25,000 each.

If the wildfire lawyers are unable to get any money, they won’t charge clients anything, he said.

Like other law groups, his firm makes videos of clients explaining the emotional impact of their losses to demonstrate what could be shown to jurors.

“We’re trying to show it’s not just someone asking for a number.” Sieglock said. “It’s an individual with a narrative and a story.”

Others focus on helping clients navigate the often frustrating insurance claim process. Miller, who lost his own Larkfield home in the fire, promotes his personal experience as an advantage. Talking with clients can be cathartic for all, he said.

“If the insurance company needs a shove, I can help them,” said the former criminal prosecutor.

Meanwhile, hands shoot up inside the Courtyard Marriott as lawyers call for questions. One man wants to know if damages are higher for injury or death than for people who simply lost their homes. Sieglock says they are. Another asks if PG&E can escape paying if it seeks protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The lawyer says no.

Still another wants to know how long litigation could take. Answer: two to four years, the lawyer said.

Lopez, who believes his insurance will pay to rebuild his Walnut Creek Court house, asked if he’ll be compensated for the hassle of being crammed into a small duplex, without his cherished garage or other creature comforts, while he waits.

Sieglock nodded yes.

“I had hobbies,” he said. “I had things I liked to do. I lost all that. How do you put a value on it?”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-521-5250 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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