Judge Rejects PG&E Bid to Move Wildfire Liability Trial

Burned by the Tubbs fire, only a pool remains among the ashes of an Old Redwood Highway complex near Mark West Springs Road on Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California. (Karl Mondon /San Jose Mercury News via AP)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A jury trial on Pacific Gas and Electric’s liability for the 2017 Tubbs Fire will start Jan. 7 in San Francisco, a California judge ruled Monday, after rejecting PG&E’s requests to move the case to Santa Rosa and limit the number of plaintiffs.

PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini argued the trial should be held in Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs Fire razed a neighborhood and destroyed more than 5,000 buildings in the surrounding area.

“We believe the community actually impacted by the fire – Sonoma County – ought to have the right to decide these issues,” Orsini said.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teri Jackson disagreed, noting jurors are not supposed to have “a vested interest” in cases they decide.

“They have to have an open mind, and make their decision not based on their own feelings but on the facts that apply,” Jackson said.

This past January, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) found a “private electrical system” caused the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and caused $6.2 billion in damage. Despite those findings, a group of fire victims insists that PG&E shares blame for failing to cut power during high wind gusts.

Representing wildfire victims, attorney Alison Cordova argued the plaintiffs’ choice of venue should be given preference and that state law allows a trial to be held in the place where harm occurred or where the defendant resides. PG&E’s headquarters is in San Francisco.

Jackson ultimately decided to keep the trial in San Francisco.

The judge also rejected PG&E’s motion to exclude nine of the 18 plaintiffs authorized by a bankruptcy judge last month to take PG&E to trial in state court.

Orsini insisted allowing those plaintiffs and other “indispensable parties,” such as their family members, to participate would add unnecessary time, work and complexity to the case. He noted PG&E is under pressure to resolve its liabilities and exit bankruptcy by June 30, 2020, in order access a state-created wildfire insurance fund “that provides security going forward.”

Evaluating damages for each plaintiff would add at least a week of court time to the trial, he argued.

Cordova noted the court should separate the trial in two phases – causation and damages – to assuage those concerns. She added PG&E had already obtained some discovery from those plaintiffs before it declared bankruptcy so “we’re not at the beginning stages of this case.”

Jackson said she believes the nine plaintiffs are representative of the average Tubbs Fire victim, and she denied PG&E’s motion to exclude them.

The judge also granted the plaintiffs’ motion for preference, which requires the trial be held within 120 days. She set a trial date of Jan. 7, 2020.

Jackson asked all parties to submit a joint case management plan by Sept. 26, and she scheduled a case management conference for Oct. 1.

In August, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali granted a motion for relief from an automatic stay to hold the Tubbs Fire trial in state court. The jury’s verdict will guide determinations on PG&E’s total wildfire liability. U.S. District Judge James Donato, one of three judges now involved in the sprawling bankruptcy case, is overseeing the process of estimating PG&E’s total wildfire liability.

Last week, PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion to settle claims with insurers that covered losses for Northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The insurers were initially seeking $20 billion in damage from the company.

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