San Francisco attorney Kate Dyer, of Clarence Dyer & Cohen LLP, represents Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) at an important moment in the company’s trajectory: The recent 2018 wildfires in Butte County, California have become the subject of inquiry by a federal judge overseeing a 2017 judgment entered against PG&E as a result of the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion and fire and could result in modification of the company’s probation conditions. PG&E was convicted on felony counts in 2016 related to the 2010 Sam Bruno gas line explosion.
On January 18th, U.S. District Judge William Alsup tentatively found that PG&E’s equipment’s susceptibility to falling tree limbs has been the “single most recurring cause” of the California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 to which the company has been linked. On January 9th, Judge Alsup filed an order requiring PG&E to make its power lines safe or shut them off in high winds. PG&E and the government have until January 23rd to comment on the Judge’s January 18th tentative finding and to show cause why the probation should not be modified with new conditions. A hearing is scheduled for January 30th.
On December 28, 2018, in response to a request from Judge Alsup, the California Attorney General Office detailed potential criminal charges that the utility could face, including murder or involuntary manslaughter, if it is found responsible for the recent wildfires. Further, on January 14th, the company announced that it would file for bankruptcy because of possible wildfire liability and on January 16th, PG&E was sued by Butte County for negligence in regard to the Camp Fire.
The inquiry into the 2017 judgment began late last year. In November 2018, Judge Alsup asked PG&E to answer four questions related to the 2017 judgment, specifically focusing on what requirements of the judgment against PG&E might be implicated if any wildfires were started by the company or if the company had failed or been slow in reporting wildfires. Judge Alsup also asked PG&E what steps had been taken to improve the company’s safety and reporting regarding power lines and wildfires. Furthermore, connecting the 2017 judgment to the wildfires in late 2018 in Butte County, Judge Alsup asked PG&E to provide an “accurate and complete statement of the role” it may have had in reporting or causing the Camp Fire in Butte County, or any other wildfires since the judgment.
Around the same time, PG&E stock plummeted as investors feared future liabilities associated with the wildfires. On January 14th, after the company’s announcement it would file for bankruptcy, shares decreased in value by more than 50%. PG&E has stated that it knows of about 50 lawsuits, including six putative class actions that have been filed against it so far over the Camp Fire. Sources indicate that the company faces more than $30 billion in liability for fires in 2017 and 2018.
The Camp Fire in Butte County resulted in 86 civilian deaths and displaced thousands of homeowners.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers, employees, contractors and the communities we serve,” PG&E said in a November statement. “We continue to focus on assessing infrastructure, safely restoring power where possible, and helping our customers recover and rebuild.”
The California Public Utilities Commission also announced in mid-December that they would be starting a new investigation into PG&E, claiming that the company falsified records and committed safety violations for years.It’s a familiar role for Dyer, who leads Clarence Dyer & Cohen’s civil defense practice and has represented PG&E in several substantial civil matters, including the 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California. She has also defended Fortune 200 companies facing sensitive claims involving catastrophic injury, wrongful death, parallel civil/criminal proceedings and other high‐profile matters with multi‐million dollar exposure. Further, she has defended several executives facing multiple civil lawsuits parallel to criminal securities fraud proceedings.
PG&E is in good hands with Dyer, and we will continue to follow her representation of PG&E in the wake of the latest California wildfires.
In addition to Dyer, PG&E is also represented by Reid J. Schar and Randy Mehrberg of Jenner & Block LLP.
The case is U.S. v. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., case number 3:14-cr-00175, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.