Lawyers argue Santa Rosa courts should handle wildfire suits

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As the number of October wildfire lawsuits against PG&E swelled close to 40, a group of Santa Rosa lawyers filed legal papers Friday seeking to consolidate them all in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The request made to the Judicial Council of California opposes a separate effort from a Southern California-based lawyer to have the cases overseen by a San Francisco court.

It argues the lawsuits belong in Sonoma County, where fires burned 137 square miles, killed 24 people and destroyed 5,130 homes. The most devastating of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, roared into northern Santa Rosa, wiping out whole neighborhoods from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park.

“The fact is this is a Sonoma County tragedy,” said attorney John Cox. “It’s where the evidence is located and where the witnesses are. It should be handled by Sonoma County courts.”

Santa Monica lawyer Bill Robins, who represents the first Santa Rosa fire victims to sue PG&E, alleging fallen power lines caused the fires, is arguing the San Francisco court is better equipped to handle complex cases and is a more convenient location.

The Judicial Council, which is based in San Francisco, has assigned a San Francisco judge to rule in the matter. A hearing date is expected early next year.

Meanwhile, the cause of the Oct. 8 fires has not been determined and Cal Fire is continuing to investigate it. Scott Mclean, the agency’s spokesman, could not say how long that would take.

By comparison, an investigation of the 2015 Valley fire in Lake and Napa counties took 364 days, he said.

“It’s very meticulous, very thorough,” Mclean said.

The California Public Utilities Commission in late October released reports from PG&E showing numerous instances of toppled trees and downed power lines the night of the fires. The information helped stoke allegations that the company failed to trim trees near the lines and properly maintain its equipment.

PG&E released information suggesting private property caused at least one of the fires.

The prospect of collecting billions of dollars in damages has drawn lawyers from across the country. So far, 21 firms have filed 38 different lawsuits representing 273 individual plaintiffs, Cox said.

His legal team, which includes attorney and former state Sen. Noreen Evans and attorney Roy Miller, have filed 13 suits on behalf of 139 people — all Tubbs fire victims.

Up to 60 more potential plaintiffs have signaled their intent to sue, he said.

“We’ll have the majority very quickly if we don’t already,” Cox said.

But numbers alone aren’t the deciding factor in where cases should be heard, Evans said. There’s a list of criteria the court must go by and convenience to the lawyers is not on it, she said.

“The claims by other attorneys that San Francisco hotels and restaurants are better is totally wrong,” Evans said. “That should not be the deciding factor. This is where the fires happened.”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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