Although the cause of the Sonoma County wildfires is still the subject of ongoing investigation, many officials suspect that downed power lines located in close proximity to trees and other vegetation was a leading cause of the fires that began between October 8th and 11th of 2017.
This is not the first time that Californians have been on the hook for corporate carelessness; a systemic disregard for necessary safety measures and proper maintenance across California’s non-governmental energy industry is thought to be responsible for many fires in the state’s past.
Neither are allegations of criminal negligence a first for California-based energy company PG&E – in 2015, PG&E was found responsible for causing the Butte Fire, which destroyed 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras Counties. It is expected that, once these lawsuits have been settled, PG&E will be required to pay over $1 billion in damages. In 2010, the company was convicted of violating pipeline safety laws and obstructing investigators after the death of 10 people in the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. As a result, the company was ordered by the state government to pay $1.6 billion, in addition to private and federal settlements.
An independent audit from the state of California later revealed that PG&E had illegally diverted over $100 million from its safety operations budget to fund bonuses for its executives. In 1994, the company was charged with 739 counts of criminal negligence for failing to properly trim trees that were located near power lines, resulting in a wildfire that devastated the Sierra Nevada foothills area.
Reports suggest that these events have not provided enough incentive for the company to change its behavior; on October 8th, the night the wildfires began, local fire crews responded to 911 calls reporting blown transformers, sparking wires, and other problems in 10 different locations along PG&E’s power lines. Two days prior, the company was successful in once again delaying the implementation of a government safety initiative intended to prevent future fires – a feat they have accomplished at least five times over the span of a decade, according to the state Senate subcommittee presiding over the initiative.
However, evidence suggests that the company failed to meet even these lax safety requirements; PG&E reported downed power lines on the night of October 8th on account of strong winds, despite winds reaching only half the speed power poles are required by law to withstand.
Jump to "How Can I Recover Losses
Most households will have some level of insurance coverage against fire damage. This coverage varies by policy and geographical area, but can include expenses relating to fire and smoke damage to your home and belongings, as well as additional living expenses such as travel and hotel fees in the case of displacement. Contact your insurance company to determine which expenses can be covered and what documentation you will need to submit with your claim.
Unfortunately, even premium insurance plans will likely not cover the full amount of losses from fire damage. Other damages -- such as the health effects of smoke inhalation, the destruction of priceless family photos, and time spent relocating, recovering, and rebuilding -- cannot be easily quantified for reimbursement.
An additional way to regain some of these lost expenses is by filing a lawsuit against the entity responsible for the fires. The attorneys at Adams Fietz believe that, at the conclusion of the current investigations by state agencies Cal Fire and the California Public Utilities Commission,PG&E will be found to be partly or entirely at fault for the Sonoma County fires, citing the company’s long history of negligence and multiple accounts that the company had failed to trim vegetation around power lines. Hundreds of families have already come forward with their PG&E claims; these claims can be filed quickly, will not involve going to court or attending a trial, and will not require any documentation than is not already being collected for one’s insurance company.
Jump to "How Do PG&E Claims Work?
One important thing to note is that these claims against PG&E are not in a class action; class action suits involve one or two claimants coming forward on behalf of a larger group or ‘class.’ This offers individuals very little opportunity to make their own decisions, and often the payouts are small. However, when hundreds or thousands of people make individual claims against PG&E, this becomes a mass tort case.
Once these individual claims are filed, they are consolidated into a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding (JCCP). This will likely take place in San Francisco rather than Sonoma County, as local courts are already overwhelmed by the effect of the fires and do not have as much experience in dealing with mass tort cases. The Coordinated Proceeding will appoint a judge to manage these cases so that the claims may move forward together; however, each individual still retains the right to make his or her own choice at the end.
Fortunately, these cases do not require much effort on the part of the victims; other than providing information about lost or damaged property that has already been collected for one’s insurance company, individual claimants will not have to do any work throughout the case. There is no payment required unless you win your case, and individuals will likely never have to go to court; most of the work will be accomplished behind-the-scenes through our legal team.
These cases involve a lot of information and evidence, which can unfortunately take time to consider; similar cases been known to take between two to five years before a settlement is reached. However, the payoffs received at the end of the process are more than enough to justify the small effort of making a claim today.