Post-Blast Evidence OK’d in PG&E Criminal Trial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday refused to block evidence that Pacific Gas and Electric says will cause a jury to unfairly assume it was responsible for the fatal San Bruno pipeline blast in 2010.
Four weeks into a criminal trial over allegations that it violated of pipeline safety laws, the utility company filed a motion Sunday asking the court to ban evidence of responses it submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission after the explosion.
Before the trial started last month, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson issued a ruling barring prosecutors from presenting evidence of fines or remedial measures the commission imposed on PG&E after the blast. That evidence could cause the jury to unfairly assume PG&E is guilty of violating safety laws, the judge ruled.
“Now, the government is making wholesale use of responses in those proceedings, and suggesting that the responses — and the questions themselves — are evidence of regulatory violations,” PG&E stated in its July 10 motion.
One response submitted to the commission includes a document showing PG&E had a practice of raising pressure on pipelines up to 10 percent beyond the maximum allowed under federal law. PG&E claimed that document was merely a draft and not an official policy of the company.
“The government introduced a lot of elements of things that happened after San Bruno,” PG&E attorney Steven Bauer said during a hearing Monday. “They’re talking about the policies being reviewed after San Bruno. The clear implication is that these policies are somehow unsafe.”
In a ruling issued Tuesday, Henderson refused to bar the government from showing evidence of PG&E’s responses to commission data requests, finding PG&E’s concerns could be quelled with an admonition to the jury.
Henderson agreed to read a PG&E-crafted instruction reminding the jury that the cause of the blast is not at issue in this trial and that the jury may not assume PG&E is guilty based on remedial measures and investigations by the commission and other agencies.
The government had opposed PG&E’s motion for a limiting instruction to the jury, arguing that jurors should consider the utility’s responses as evidence of its guilt.
Prosecutors specifically pointed to a pipeline features list submitted to the commission after the blast, which shows the company failed to include necessary data in the information system it relied on to make safety decisions before the blast.
In his Tuesday ruling, Henderson also refused to let PG&E introduce “context evidence” about its post-explosion activities without opening the door for the government to present further evidence on the same subject.
Henderson said PG&E should offer evidence it deems necessary for context but continue to adhere to the limits prescribed in his pretrial evidence ruling.
If PG&E does submit post-explosion evidence that “opens the door” for the government to present further proof, Henderson said the government can raise that concern when it becomes an issue.
PG&E is accused of 12 counts of violating recordkeeping and pipeline testing regulations under the Pipeline Safety Act and of obstructing an investigation into the cause of the explosion.
The rupture of Line 132 in a residential neighborhood of San Bruno on Sept. 9, 2010, killed eight people, injured 58 and destroyed 38 homes.
If convicted, PG&E faces a potential $562 million fine for all the charges.
Last year, the state commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the explosion, the largest penalty ever assessed against a utility company in the state’s history.
The trial is expected to continue through mid-August.

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