Edison and PG&E Are About to Face Lawsuits Over California Wildfires

(Bloomberg) -- Edison International and PG&E Corp. may face lawsuits as soon as this week blaming them for the fires raging through communities in southern and northern California.

Each utility has reported disturbances to its equipment close to the starting points of the devastating Woolsey and Camp fires. That could be a linchpin for lawsuits. Under California law, if the equipment is found to be the cause of the fires, the utilities can be held liable for property losses even if they didn’t act negligently.

"We have strong evidence of Southern California Edison’s responsibility for the fire," said Alex Robertson, a plaintiff lawyer who also has brought cases against the utility over the mudslides that destroyed parts of coastal Montecito, California, last year as the result of wildfires. He said he expects to file “several dozen” lawsuits this week in state court in Los Angeles.

Edison’s Southern California Edison utility said late Friday a power outage occurred near the suspected starting point of one of the fires near Los Angeles and that a sensor detected a disturbance in its equipment two minutes before the blaze was reported. The company said there had been no determination of origin and that it will cooperate with state and local investigations that are seeking to identify the cause of the fire. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the prospect of litigation.

PG&E said a transmission line in the area of the Camp blaze -- about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco -- went offline 15 minutes before the fire was first reported. The company also reported finding a damaged transmission tower near where investigators say the fire began.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve,” PG&E said in an emailed statement. “The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been determined. Right now, our entire company is focused on supporting first responders and assisting our customers and communities impacted by the Camp Fire.”

Robertson’s firm, Robertson & Associates LLP, is located in the Woolsey Fire mandatory evacuation zone in Westlake Village and his home in Simi Valley was threatened as well by flames, Robertson said.

"We’re right in the middle of it," Robertson said. "Lots of our friends and clients that know our work have reached out to us to bring claims."

"While it’s still early, the signs point at Southern California Edison," said Brian Panish, an attorney with Panish Shea & Boyle LLP and one of the lead lawyers involved in the litigation against the utility over last year’s Thomas Fire in Southern California. "I think it’s going to be clearly on them."

Mike Danko, a lawyer representing victims of the Camp Fire, said he’ll file a complaint within the next two days. To him, it’s clear what happened based on PG&E’s own report of a line outage near a high-tension tower underneath which witnesses saw a fire. “That pretty much sums it up.”

PG&E promised to turn its power off in areas prone to wildfires when meteorologists warn of dry conditions combined with high winds, he said. In Butte county, the company said it was inclined to cut its power but decided against it, according to Danko.

Bonuses at the company are tied to customer complaints, and PG&E managers continued supplying power to avoid complaints and risking additional income, he said.

“This is the worst of them all,” Danko said, referring to recent fires tied to the company’s equipment. “Because PG&E knew what to do to prevent the fire, knew what the risks of a fire are” based on last year, “and instead lined their pockets at the expense of customer safety.”

Steve Campora, a lawyer who has previously sued PG&E over fires and a fatal gas leak blast, said he’s received about 30 calls, many from relatives or colleagues whose homes have been destroyed in the Camp Fire. His first advice is to find a place of safety and then contact their insurance company.

The lawyer said he’s drafted a complaint, and that once he gets some key facts together he will file a lawsuit within 10 days. “Once I have complaint on file I can use the court’s power, if necessary, to make sure things are happening,” including maintaining records and preserving physical evidence, he said.

“I have people who are experts in PG&E’s operations seeing what they can determine with regard of the cause of the fire,” Campora said, referring to private investigators he’s hired. These forensics experts won’t have the access they need ahead of CalFire and Forest Service officials on the ground now, he said.

Getting to the bottom of what happened may take many months. Officials with CalFire haven’t announced their findings about the cause of two of last year’s biggest fires -- Tubbs and Thomas.

The Tubbs investigation is complicated, as it relies on a large amount of physical evidence, Campora said. With leads on the fire’s origins possibly pointing to more than one location, investigators examine smart meters, consult experts,and examine photographs “to figure out how the first fire got to where it was going,” Campora said. “There’s all kinds of issues.” Investigators for lawyers can’t complete their investigations until CalFire releases all the physical evidence, he said.

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