OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A California judge refused Tuesday to dismiss civil allegations that Pacific Gas & Electric is partly responsible for the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36 people last year.
Attorneys for the utility, one of California’s largest, denied the allegations in an afternoon hearing at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in downtown Oakland, insisting that PG&E had no legal duty to inspect or repair the Ghost Ship’s electrical system. But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman said PG&E could still be held responsible for California’s deadliest structure fire in nearly 15 years.
“I actually think there are allegations in the complaint that suggest knowledge by PG&E that there were problems in the Ghost Ship,” Seligman said before rejecting PG&E’s objection to the lawsuit.
PG&E is one of 24 defendants in a consolidated negligence and wrongful death lawsuit brought by family members and friends of the people who died in the Oakland warehouse while attending a dance party on the night of Dec. 2 last year. Also named as defendants are the building’s owner and master tenants, the City of Oakland, Alameda County and the State of California.
The lawsuit accuses PG&E of failing to install separate electrical meters on the Ghost Ship and two adjoining buildings, and of not monitoring the flow of power to the buildings through the single meter that had been installed next door.
The Ghost Ship received its power from a car stereo shop next door, via a cable snaked through a hole in the wall, and extension cords and cables were strewn around the building, according to the complaint.
Had PG&E monitored the flow of power, the plaintiffs say, it would have noticed the dangerous power surges caused by the overloaded electrical lines supplying the Ghost Ship, which hosted dozens of concertgoers and as many as 25 residents, all illegally. That would have triggered an inspection and termination of service before the fire could happen, they say.
Although the complaint does not identify what started the fire, it suggests the overloaded lines did it. Federal investigators were unable to pinpoint a cause.
PG&E attorney Kate Dyer on Tuesday insisted her client was not required to meter the Ghost Ship separately. In a brief to the court, PG&E claims that state regulations require separate metering only on the premises identified in a service application. The Ghost Ship was not included in any application for service, the utility said.
Dyer said PG&E is responsible for electrical equipment only up to its service delivery point —usually a meter installed outside of a building — while the customer is responsible for electrical equipment inside a building. She added that PG&E is not liable for damage caused by a customer.
According to PG&E, master tenant-defendant Derick Almena did unlicensed electrical work inside the Ghost Ship without PG&E’s knowledge.
“Duties as to customer-owned equipment are clear,” Dyer told the judge. “The utilities are not in the business of going into customers’ homes to confirm their microwave is properly working.”
Seligman, however, said PG&E’s alleged failure to install a submeter on the Ghost Ship may render it liable for the fire despite regulations limiting its liability to equipment outside a building.
“Some of the allegations suggest there were things PG&E did before it got past that point,” the judge said, referring to the service delivery point.
“There were duties to put in submeters,” he continued, adding that the regulations “don’t define the scope” of PG&E’s duties.
In a tentative ruling Monday, Seligman wrote that the allegations suggest that PG&E’s service delivery point was actually inside the Ghost Ship.
The plaintiffs claim the Ghost Ship was a “fire trap” unfit for residential and entertainment use. The 10,000-square-foot building lacked overhead sprinklers and emergency lighting and had only two stairwells, one of which was blocked off before the Dec. 2 party. Attendees died of smoke inhalation, trapped on the second floor.
In a related criminal case brought in June, Alameda County prosecutors charged Almena and Max Harris, who planned the party, of knowingly endangering people by allowing them to live and throw events at the warehouse, making unpermitted electrical repairs and stuffing it with flammable materials without ensuring it was up to code.
Almena’s defense team hit back a week later, accusing prosecutors of filing charges to cover for the Oakland Fire Department and city building inspectors, who they say knew people lived there but took no action. They also blamed PG&E.
At a hearing in the criminal matter on Wednesday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Northridge overruled Almena’s objection to the charges.
Almena’s lawyers had argued the charges were too ambiguous to defend against, and asked Northridge to order prosecutors to specify what laws their client violated ahead of a November preliminary hearing.
“They say they committed an illegal act amounting to a felony, but they don’t tell us what. What illegal act?” Almena’s attorney Tony Serra said after the hearing.
Almena and Harris will enter pleas on Oct. 27. A preliminary hearing is set for Nov. 13.
Dyer is with Clarence Dyer & Cohen in San Francisco.
The plaintiffs are represented by Frank Pitre with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, and by liaison counsel Mary Alexander with Mary Alexander & Associates, in San Francisco.
Serra is with Pier 5 Law Offices, also in San Francisco.