North Bay fire lawsuits against PG&E create venue dispute

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A tug-of-war is brewing over whether Sonoma County or San Francisco courts should handle the thousands of wildfire lawsuits expected to emerge against PG&E.

Lawyers representing one group of plaintiffs argue San Francisco is a better venue because the court is larger and has the administrative capacity for more complex cases. They have petitioned the California Judicial Council to appoint one San Francisco judge to oversee all pretrial matters including depositions, hearings and evidence disputes.

But other lawyers seeking damages against PG&E say the cases belong in Sonoma County where the fires charred about 100,000 acres, destroyed 4,000 homes and killed 23 people. They are seeking to block a move across the Golden Gate to PG&E’s headquarters city with their own Judicial Council motion.

“Why would I want to fight the case in PG&E’s backyard?” Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller said in a press conference Friday outside the Sonoma County courthouse. “It’s insane to go to San Francisco.”

As of this week, 10 lawsuits with more than 100 plaintiffs had been filed claiming poorly maintained power lines were responsible for the series of fires that started Oct. 8. The cause remains under investigation by Cal Fire.

The suits were filed mostly in San Francisco courts by firms based outside the Bay Area.

Santa Monica attorney Bill Robins sued PG&E on behalf of two Santa Rosa families whose homes were destroyed by the Tubbs fire. He said San Francisco makes logistical sense, in part because it is easier to get to for witnesses, PG&E officials and attorneys flying in from across the country.

His motion, filed this week, is expected to be assigned to a hearing judge for oral argument and a ruling.

“There are going to be a lot of people coming,” said Robins, whose firm is based in Houston. “We have to think about that.”

Robins said coordinating the cases under a San Francisco judge would not preclude some lawsuits from eventually being remanded to Sonoma County for trial. The judge would simply preside over the early stages.

But opponents of that plan said pretrial decisions are crucial and can determine the outcome of a case. Miller, along with fellow Santa Rosa lawyer and former state Sen. Noreen Evans, vowed to file numerous cases in Sonoma County in association with the Texas-based firm of heavyweight plaintiffs attorney Mikal Watts. Just where they land could be determined by the sheer number.

Evans said Sonoma County fire victims deserve to have their cases heard by Sonoma County judges in their home court.

“Everything is here,” Evans said outside the courthouse. “In the law, that’s what drives the venue.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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