Erin Brockovich visits as Camp Fire lawsuits pile up

Lawsuits alleging Pacific Gas and Electric is to blame for the destructive Camp Fire are piling up in Butte County Superior Court, but they may eventually be consolidated and heard in Sacramento or San Francisco.

Motions to move the cases to larger courts have been sent to the California Judicial Council, said Kimberly Flener, the chief court administrator for Butte County. The council’s chair, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye will eventually assign them to a trial judge who will rule on the requests. It is unclear when, or where, that will occur.

At least 15 suits against the utility have been filed in Butte County and two in San Francisco, including one in federal court, over the fire. The lawsuits involve more than 430 plaintiffs.

The blaze, which destroyed much of Paradise on Nov. 8 and forced a mass evacuation, was the deadliest and most destructive in state history, destroying much of Paradise on Nov. 8. Eighty-five people died.Lawyers from as far away as Texas have descended on the county, opening offices, soliciting clients with everything from community meetings to newspaper ads to robo calls. Eventually, tens of the thousands of plaintiffs could be involved.

One group that includes the son of former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer brought environmentalist Erin Brockovich, whose battles against PG&E were made into a Hollywood movie bearing her name, to the area this week to promote itself.

State investigators have yet to publicly identity a cause of the fire, which PG&E pointed out in a written statement, adding: “We are aware of lawsuits regarding the Camp Fire. Right now, our focus is on assessing infrastructure, safely restoring power where possible, and helping our customers recover and rebuild.”

Butte County has two judges assigned to its civil division and any moving of the suits could be a relief, said UC Hastings law professor Richard Marcus said.

“Even in the best of times Butte County Superior Court could easily be overwhelmed (by the suits) and this isn’t the best of times for Butte County,” Marcus said

But there would be other considerations, such as “where the witnesses are” and a basic premise of civil litigation — “the places where the (damage) occurred is the place for the lawsuits that are filed,” he said.

It’s possible that Cantil-Sakauye could appoint a special master or a retired judge to oversee the cases in Butte, Flener said. Or, she said, “send to one judge for case management.”

PG&E is already facing more than 200 lawsuits over fires last year in Sonoma and Napa counties, with more than 100 of them consolidated in San Francisco. Cal Fire, the state fire agency, has found PG&E to blame for 16 wine country fires and ruled 11 of them started because safety rules were broken. No cause has been determined for the largest of the blazes, the Tubbs Fire.

The Butte suits are more trouble for the giant, publicly traded utility, which was convicted of six felonies in 2017 for the death of eight people in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. The prospect of the company filing for bankruptcy has loomed large over it well before Paradise was largely destroyed.

The state Public Utilities Commission could put the company out to bid that could result in it being bought, or the state could seize it into a public authority, said Mark Toney executive director of The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a watchdog group.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a bill allowing PG&E to pass the cost of legal settlements from the 2017 fires on to ratepayers. The bill didn’t include fire this year. Lawmakers are now rushing to pass a bill extending the protections to this year.

Toney said hits from lawsuits might not change the company.

“I am not convinced the issue is money,” he said.  “Safety is not about a lack of money. I think the problems are so fundamental. They don’t have an effective management system.  If you don’t have a good plan then what?”

It may even be too late to save the beleaguered company, he said. If it’s not suits from the Camp Fire that bring it down, “It will be something else. Business as usual is not sustainable.”

The lawyers pouring into Butte County seem intent on taking down the company, like the one that brought in Brockovich.

“Star power,” Marcus said of Brockovich’s appearance, a fairly common tactic of lawyers to interest perspective clients.

Nearly 200 people crowded into a Tuesday midday meeting where Brockovich spoke.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through,” she said. “You are not alone, I am going to support you. It will be impossible for you over the next couple of months to wrap your minds around what’s gone on. It is OK to cry. It is OK to be angry. It is OK to be frustrated.”

Mikal Watt, a Texas lawyer heading the group Brockovich is working for, has sued PG&E multiple times, including over the wine country fire. He pitched his experience litigating against the utility as a selling point.

“When you look inside the file cabinets of PG&E you want to throw up,” he said. And unlike the other fires, like the ones in Napa and Sonoma, what happened in Paradise “isn’t the toughest fire to prove that PG&E did it.”