As Pacific Gas & Electric Co. braces for the possibility that its power lines will be named by investigators as the cause of the North Bay wildfires, the utility’s legal strategy appears to involve trying to spread the blame for billions of dollars in fire losses on local governments.
The San Francisco utility company has filed claims with Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa and other agencies saying that if PG&E is found liable for the fires, then those governments may share responsibility because of the “inadequacy” of the local fire response and preparations.
The company says filing the claims was merely a way to preserve its rights, and not an indication that it will actually point the finger at firefighters, urban planners and water managers for failing to stop the wildfires, which killed 24 people and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.
Nevertheless, the filings raise the prospect the investor-owned utility will do just that if boxed into a legal corner.
“From a legal perspective, what their claim says is ‘if we are held liable, you share in some of that liability,’ ” Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher said.
The claim was filed in Santa Rosa in April, but got its first airing in closed session before the City Council this week. Sonoma County has already filed a lawsuit against PG&E for damages related to the fires, and the city, which has hired the same law firm, is preparing to follow suit, Gallagher said.
In its claim, PG&E asserts that the city may share liability for the fire damages for several reasons, including the “inadequacy” of its “urban planning and property development approvals.”
The company also points to “water, emergency preparedness and other infrastructure for which Santa Rosa is responsible,” as well as the failure to enforce “laws and ordinances related to vegetation” to reduce fuel loads, and the general “fire and emergency response during the fires.”
According to a source who works with PG&E executives and is familiar with the company’s thinking, the planning piece stems from questions raised about the wisdom of allowing so many homes to be built in fire-prone areas such as Fountaingrove.
The inadequacy claim about the water infrastructure relates to information that water pumps failed during the fire, according to the source, who is not authorized to speak for PG&E and requested anonymity.
And there is also ample evidence in the public record that public agencies in Sonoma County have at times opposed efforts by PG&E to trim vegetation from high-voltage power lines in the county, the source indicated.
Gallagher called the claims “completely baseless.” In addition to being untrue, the claims have no legal merit because public agencies are immune from such liability claims when they act in good faith to serve the public, she said.
“Not only from the factual basis, but also from a legal perspective, the claim is without factual basis and it has no legal grounding,” Gallagher said.
Nevertheless, the claims are “not a bluff” and she expects the company to aggressively attempt to shift the liability to government agencies throughout the litigation, which she said will be complex and lengthy.
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