PG&E could face criminal charges as serious as manslaughter or murder in the wake of the deadly Camp Fire.
The possible charges were described in a brief from the Office of the California Attorney General.
If a jury finds PG&E guilty of criminal negligence or recklessness, the utility could face criminal charges that include:
- Failing to clear vegetation from a power line or pole;
- Starting a wildfire;
- Involuntary manslaughter, or
- Implied-malice murder.
The last three are felonies. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Fogg wrote:
“If PG&E caused any of the fires, the investigation would have to extend into PG&E’s operations, maintenance, and safety practices to determine whether criminal statutes were violated.”
“Talk is one thing, by outlining what some of these potential charges are. But if we want to get at the heart of justice over these fires that we’ve seen, we need to have some action taken, we need to have a proper investigation,” said State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).
The severity of those charges, all the way up to murder, depends on the degree of malice or negligence. Retired Judge Ladoris Cordell says you can’t jail a corporation
“Even if it’s a murder conviction against a corporation, the corporation is not going to prison. Nobody is going to prison,” said Cordell.
PG&E already has 6 felony convictions from the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. As a result, the company paid fines, performed community service and is currently on probation.
A new criminal conviction could mean a longer probation period.
“Customers want to see actual people held accountable,” said Mindy Spatt of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, an advocate for ratepayers.
“There are actual individuals at PG&E who are making these decisions and in many cases, we’re talking about individuals who are receiving multi-million dollar pay packages on customers’ dime to do so,” said Spatt.
Senator Hill agrees.
“Until someone goes to prison for these actions, we’re not going to see the change in culture. We’re not going to see a change in behavior unless someone actually spends sometime behind bars,” he said.
Legal experts say even if the company is liable, it’s unlikely prosecutors would go after PG&E executives.
Nonetheless, a criminal case against the big utility could lead to a state takeover or even a breakup of the company.
“If it’s determined that PG&E, this defendant, did not behave according to the terms of the probation, yes, PG&E is big, big trouble.,” said Cordell.
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. It claimed 86 lives.