PG&E Faces First Lawsuit Over Wine Country Wildfires

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The first of what is expected to be many lawsuits arising out of the devastating wildfires that ripped through Northern California last week has been filed against utility giant PG&E, claiming its power lines started the blaze.

Santa Rosa couple Wayne and Jennifer Harvell claim Pacific Gas & Electric failed to trim tree branches and repair power lines suspected of sparking the fire on Oct. 8. The blaze took over a week of firefighters working around the clock to contain.

The Harvells filed their complaint in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, but the court did not make it available until Wednesday. They are represented by Bill Robins of Robins Cloud in Santa Monica, California, who did not return email and phone requests for comment.

According to the Harvells, PG&E knew that last year’s heavy rains following a long period of severe drought caused an unusual amount of vegetation to spring up throughout California’s wine country, which quickly turned to dry brush in this summer’s unusually extreme heat.

They say PG&E was “negligent in that they failed to properly maintain, repair, and inspect the subject lines, equipment and adjacent vegetation and negligently failed to properly trim, prune, remove, and/or otherwise maintain vegetation near their electrical equipment as to secure safety to the public.”

The Harvells owned a home on Mocha Road in Santa Rosa that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, the largest of several wildfires that devastated the region. The Tubbs Fire leveled nearly 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone, and killed 22 people.

Other wildfires in the region include the Atlas Fire in Napa County, the Pocket Fire in Sonoma County, the Redwood Valley Fire in Mendocino County, and the Nuns Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Downed power lines is just one of a handful of theories about the cause of the wildfires, and while it hasn’t been ruled out by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, it has not been definitely proven either.

In a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, PG&E said “it is currently unknown whether the utility would have any liability associated with these fires,” but added that Cal Fire is looking into what role power lines and other electrical equipment might have played. It also said it has $800 million in liability insurance for potential losses.

In an email sent to Courthouse News Wednesday, PG&E spokeswoman Angela Lombardi said the utility is cooperating with investigators, but is focused on restoring electricity and gas to its customers.

“As the fires continue to burn, we’re focused on supporting firefighting efforts to contain the fires and protect life and property,” Lombardi said. “Once it is safe to do so, restoring power and gas service safely and as quickly as possible will be our priority. We aren’t going to speculate about any of the causes of the fires and will cooperate with the reviews by any relevant regulator or agency.”

The Harvells note their lawsuit is not a class action. They seek repair and replacement of their damaged property, as well as compensation for lost wages and punitive damages.

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