Edison Looks to Shift the Blame for California Mudslides

(Bloomberg) -- Edison International said much of the damage from the mudslides that swept through the coastal town of Montecito last year was the result of poorly designed and maintained debris basins for which local governments are responsible.

The parent company and its Southern California Edison Co. utility filed a cross-complaint Friday against the City and the County of Santa Barbara, among other public entities, saying that a substantial part of liability for the damages should be shifted to government entities responsible for the inadequate infrastructure.

Edison is blamed for the mudslides because the company’s equipment may have ignited the wildfires that led to them.

Edison Looks to Shift the Blame for California Mudslides

“With this cross-complaint we seek to ensure that there is a comprehensive review of the role many parties may have played in the large and tragic losses suffered by the community during the Montecito mudslides,” Edison said in a statement.

“It is well known that the Montecito area has always been at high risk for mudslides and debris flows,” the company said. “We believe that city, county and state governments, including flood control, water and transportation agencies, failed to ensure that Montecito’s infrastructure was adequate to reduce the impact of such natural disasters.”

Lawyers representing the public entities in the lawsuit didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Edison’s cross-complaint.

Edison is facing more than 75 lawsuits, claiming that the utility is liable for the Montecito mudslides on Jan. 9, 2018. On that day, the first rainstorm of the year hit the fire-scorched mountains above the town and mud and boulders came crashing down, overwhelming creek beds and debris basins. More than 20 people reportedly died in the disaster and a preliminary report estimated the property damage at $177 million to $204 million.

Montecito homeowners blame Edison for the disaster because they believe the Thomas fire that raged in the mountains the previous month, which destroyed much of the vegetation that would have held the soil together during the winter storm, was caused by the utility’s power lines.

The effort to deflect liability isn’t surprising, but the stakes are higher than ever for a utility in a state where the consequences of global warming include a fire season that now lasts all year. San Francisco-based PG&E Corp. said this week it will file for bankruptcy after the cost of wildfires left it with potential liabilities of $30 billion or more.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has not yet concluded what caused the Thomas Fire. Edison said in October that its equipment was associated with an ignition near one of at least two origin points. The Thomas fire set a record for the largest wildfire in California’s history, surpassed by an even worse blaze late last year in Northern California.

Edison said in its cross-complaint that even if its equipment was involved in one of the Thomas Fire’s ignition sites, that doesn’t necessarily make it liable for any or all damage from the fire or the mudslides. According to Fitch Ratings, Southern California Edison faces more than $4 billion in possible damages from the Thomas Fire.

The case is: Southern California Fire Cases, JCCP4965, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County.

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