Victims of the Tubbs and Atlas fires in Napa and Sonoma counties have been devastated by the scope of destruction of the fires. These fires now rank among the deadliest and largest in the history of California. Those impacted from the fires, ranging from bystanders, visitors, homeowners, businesses, families, and friends of individuals injured or killed, have begun to seek legal recourse for these tragedies. Many have now turned the attention of their Atlas and Tubbs fire lawsuit to PG&E, the San Francisco-based utility company responsible for providing electrical and gas service in the area.
Prior to, and shortly after, the start of the Tubbs and Atlas fires, numerous news outlets report that residents placed emergency calls to local police, fire departments, and PG&E directly to report of downed power lines and electrical transformers exploding. The location of the downed power lines and damaged transformers has led many to believe that these power lines and transformers are the original causes of the Tubbs and Atlas fires, although the investigation is still ongoing.
Is PG&E liable for the Tubbs and Atlas fires?
As might be expected, PG&E has already begun to deflect blame for their alleged actions or inactions. PG&E spokespeople have noted that, on the night when many downed power lines and explosions were reported, the area received “hurricane force winds” which resulted in the damage. As several PG&E officials, firefighters, and state investigators have noted, the presence of high winds, and the prolonged California drought combined with recent re-vegetation may have created a perfect storm of conditions both for wildfires to start, and for fires already begun to spread quickly.
However, even if PG&E is correct that the conditions in northern California in mid-2017 created the ideal conditions for the Tubbs and Atlas fires to start and spread, this does not automatically absolve PG&E of liability in an Atlas or Tubbs fire lawsuit. PG&E might potentially be liable both for criminal wrongdoing (which could result in fines and potentially even imprisonment against individual employees of PG&E) and also civil liability. Civil liability is generally easier to prove than criminal liability, and is the means through which injured homeowners or individuals would pursue monetary damages against the company.
Likely all civil liability claims resulting from these PG&E wildfire lawsuits would be in the form of negligence actions, consistent with specific provisions of California law that permit injured individuals to sue those responsible for fires. Negligence actions turn primarily on whether those responsible—in this case, hypothetically, the utility company, PG&E—owed a duty to prevent against the Tubbs and Atlas fires, and breached that duty. Although the concept of “duty” is somewhat odd, the law imposes legal duties on many individuals and entities. One such duty imposed on power companies like PG&E is to ensure that it operates in a manner that is generally safe and reasonable and prevents against foreseeable harm to the general public.
This definition of duty (as with many similar definitions) depends on the definition of what is “reasonable.” What is reasonable in this context would be defined in the context of what other, similar utility companies might do when faced with comparable situations. For example: it is likely reasonable for a utility company to monitor the status of the power lines and gas pipes on a frequent basis. It would probably be unreasonable for a power company to monitor all of its power lines on a daily basis, and similarly unreasonable for a power company to monitor its power lines only once every decade. What is “reasonable” is therefore some period of time in between these two extremes, and courts will rely upon the actions of experts in the field, and the actions of other, similar companies, to determine what a reasonable standard is.
In the Northern California fires of 2017, PG&E’s argument that “hurricane force” winds caused power lines to go down and transformers to explode may or may not have legal significance. For example, a power line company in southern Florida, where hurricane force winds are quite common, might expect that their power lines would be subjected to such winds frequently, and therefore would need to build and maintain their utility infrastructure to prevent against such scenarios. On the contrary, a power company in Colorado might rarely, if ever, see hurricane force winds, but might need to be prepared to contend with heavy snowfall, or tornados. Similarly, PG&E’s argument that a prolonged drought followed by re-growth of previously dying vegetation may hinge on whether such drought and re-growth is common. Again, southern Florida may rarely, if ever, see periods of drought leading to massive vegetation death, while central Arizona may frequently experience the opposite. In both the wind and drought scenario, a court must determine if PG&E’s actions or inactions were reasonable given the circumstances: that is, if PG&E should have been aware of and anticipated that hurricane force winds might occur, it likely will be found legally negligent in an Atlas or Tubbs fire lawsuit for failing to do so, since it would be unreasonable to not anticipate such an outcome. The same is true if PG&E should have been aware of and anticipated that there may be periods of drought and re-vegetation.
Is there any precedent for legal actions against a utility company?
PG&E is not new to controversy resulting from its actions. Over the past thirty years, PG&E has been forced by state and federal regulations to pay billions of dollars of fines resulting from poor maintenance of its electrical and gas infrastructure, and has paid out millions of dollars towards individuals injured as a result of fires, property damage, and recovery costs stemming from fire or gas explosions.
At the same time, determining PG&E’s fault is a legal inquiry conducted by federal, state, and local officials, and will, most likely, be definitively determined in the course of the many Atlas and Tubbs fire lawsuits that will likely flow from this event. Determining negligence, what is reasonable, and what PG&E did or failed to do in response to the circumstances presented is an inquiry only a skilled attorney familiar in such natural disasters can competently take on, and it is imperative that homeowners or individuals impacted directly by theses cataclysmic events immediately contact an attorney to ensure that important legal rights are preserved, and the facts of what occurred are fully uncovered.
Thompson Law Office Can Help With Your Atlas or Tubbs Fire Lawsuit
Thompson Law Office is here for you. Our wildfire attorneys can assist you with your Atlas and Tubbs wildfire lawsuits or claims. The complexities, stress, and uncertainties involved in either receiving full compensation from an insurance provider for fire damages, or in pursuing a lawsuit against a utility company require the attention, skill, and experience of California wildfire attorneys well versed in these disasters.
We make it our mission to untangle the complexities in a California wildfire or PG&E fire case and prepare the strongest case possible. Our wildfire lawyer’s goal is always to pursue full value of your claims, so you can move forward secure in the resources you need to recover and rebuild your home.
For more information about your legal rights in regards to an Atlas or Tubbs fire lawsuit, contact Thompson Law Office now for a free consultation.
January 14, 2018 UPDATE: We’ve written a comprehensive blog post titled “A Perfect Firestorm – PG&E’s Saga of Negligence and the 2017 California Wildfires” with our analysis of PG&E’s responsibility to its clients and shareholders.