SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Victims of wildfires sparked by Pacific Gas and Electric’s equipment must file claims by Oct. 21, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled Wednesday, despite arguments that a later deadline and more robust notice plan would allow more victims to get paid.
“If I knew we could bring one more claimant into the field, I would change the deadline, but there’s no way I can do that so I will stick with the debtors’ judgment on this one,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali said at the end of a four-hour court hearing Wednesday.
Lawyers representing wildfire victims had asked Montali to push the deadline back to Jan. 31, 2020, arguing more time was needed to adequately notify those who lost homes, belongings and loved ones in deadly wildfires. Many of the tens of thousands of fire victims were displaced, and some have left California. That makes them harder to reach, opponents of PG&E’s proposed deadline and notice plan argued.
“Notice in this case is going to be far more difficult and far more complicated than in a regular bankruptcy,” attorney Eric Goodman of Baker & Hostetler in Cleveland, who represents fire victims, said in court Wednesday.
But PG&E insisted pushing the deadline back would risk prolonging the bankruptcy case and further delay any compensation that might eventually go to victims.
“We want to move these cases forward,” PG&E lawyer Stephen Karotkin, of Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, said.
Karotkin said PG&E wants to resolve its bankruptcy case by June 30, 2020. That is the deadline California Gov. Gavin Newsom set for PG&E to exit bankruptcy before it can gain access to a proposed $10.5 billion wildfire liability trust fund the governor announced last week.
The Committee of Tort Claimants, which represents fire victims, also criticized PG&E’s $22 million notice plan, which includes direct mail, emails and advertisements, as inadequate. They argued the plan failed to include advertisements in nationwide publications, magazines, billboards, bus stops and in online streaming radio and TV services.
In response, PG&E said it would add those “unnecessary and duplicative” measures to its advertising plan.
Nevertheless, some complained the revised plan still falls short.
Elizabeth Cabraser, of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco, urged Montali to stretch the notification plan over a longer period of time. A veteran class action litigator, Cabraser said that would maximize the number of fire victims exposed to information about the claims process and deadline.
Cabraser, who served as lead plaintiffs’ counsel in the Volkswagen Diesel-gate case and as a lead attorney in the BP Gulf oil spill class action, said based on her experience, the number of claims filed tends to spike around the holiday season.
“We’d want to take advantage of the holiday season when people are more likely to gather, to speak with each other, to reinforce and encourage each other,” she said.
Nevertheless, Montali said he would not second-guess the expert advice of Jeanne Finegan, president and chief media officer of HF Media, a division of Heffler Claims Group, which PG&E tapped to handle its $22 million class notification plan.
Finegan said in a court-filed declaration that PG&E’s notice plan is “one of the largest and most comprehensive notice and media campaigns recommended in bankruptcy history.”
After approving PG&E’s proposed deadline and notice plan, Montali warned the utility that he could still push the claims deadline back if PG&E fails to start notifying victims by July 15.