Bankruptcy judge clears way for trial against PG&E on Tubbs fire
Widely held questions over whether PG&E is responsible for damages caused by the 2017 Tubbs fire that devastated Santa Rosa can be tried in civil court and decided by a California jury, a bankruptcy judge ruled Friday.
The decision marks a key juncture in PG&E’s bankruptcy case, which had stalled all lawsuits against the investor-owned utility facing an estimated $30 billion liability for wildfires started by its power equipment in 2017 and 2018.
Now, a group of plaintiffs suing PG&E can ask a jury to hear their case alleging Cal Fire got it wrong when the agency concluded the Tubbs fire — the second-most destructive wildland blaze in state history — was sparked by private power equipment and not PG&E.
Allowing a civil trial on the Tubbs fire would “advance these cases towards the necessary and stated goals of all the parties: a just resolution of the claims of victims of the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California in recent years,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali said in his five-page written order issued Friday afternoon.
If PG&E does not appeal the decision, a fast-tracked civil trial on the Tubbs fire will begin in San Francisco Superior Court. The trial will be brought on behalf of a select group of elderly plaintiffs in poor health who are entitled to a fast-tracked trial in state court because of their conditions.
Because preparations for a civil trial such as evidence gathering and witness depositions were well underway last year before the utility filed for bankruptcy in late January, lawyers handling the case said they can pick up where they left off. The plaintiffs’ attorneys told Montali they could be prepared for a trial to begin sometime in late 2019 or early 2020 — a timeline PG&E contested.
On Wednesday during a key day of arguments over the issue, a lawyer for the company warned Montali that a civil trial could imperil the company’s ability to meet a state deadline to participate in a $10.5 billion wildfire insurance fund created to help utilities pay for victims’ claims from future fires not caused by their power equipment.
PG&E has consistently defended Cal Fire’s conclusion that private power equipment started the Tubbs fire. Cal Fire has also disputed claims that its investigation was incomplete and defended the work of its investigators.
“Regardless of the next legal steps, Cal Fire has already determined that the cause of the 2017 Tubbs fire was not related to PG&E equipment,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “We intend to cooperate with the state court in order to help achieve the June 30, 2020 deadline to participate in the new state Wildfire Fund established by Assembly Bill 1054.”
Attorney Robert Julian, who led arguments Wednesday in federal bankruptcy court in San Francisco in support of a civil trial, said it was “courageous” of Montali to allow a California jury to help make crucial decisions affecting thousands of people, businesses and local governments with losses from the Tubbs fire.
“This case sends a message to the parties in the bankruptcy court and to the bondholders and the security traders on Wall Street who are trading and trying to make profits off of this case,” Julian said. “They are going to have to deal with the thousands of victims in Northern California who are trying to obtain just compensation.”