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Utility Company Fire Liability

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October 17, 2018
Edward Smith

Utility Company Fire Liability

Utility Company Fire Liability

Utility Company Fire Liability – Accusations of utility company fire liability in the 2017 Cascade Fire in Yuba County were leveled at Pacific Gas and Electric Company in an October report. With this latest investigative claim, PG&E is being held responsible for a total of 16 fires that erupted one year ago in both the Sacramento Valley and the northern bay area. These fires were deadly, killing 44 individuals. According to Cal Fire, the Cascade Fire was started due to sagging power lines owned by the utility company. The Cascade fire alone is responsible for the death of four people, including that of a firefighter, and destroyed 9,089 acres and 264 buildings. With changes in legislation to lessen utility company fire liability, many people who lost everything in the fire are worried about how the changes will affect insurance premiums and their ability to recoup damages.

Cal Fire Report on the Utility Company Fire Liability

Cal Fire, in its investigation of the Cascade Fire, found that two power lines owned by PG&E were sagging and came into direct contact with each other after the onset of high winds at the time of the fire. This led to what is called an electrical arc. Temperatures in an electrical arc can become intense, up to 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit in some cases. The heat is capable of destroying a wire’s insulation and initiating an electrical fire or spark. In this case, hot “molten” material fell to the ground, starting the fire. However, the investigation uncovered no negligence by the utility company.

Negligence and a Utility Company Fire Liability

In the past, state law specified that utility companies were liable for damages caused by fire whether or not negligence was involved. Under the concept of strict liability in the state, responsibility for damages generally does not depend on negligence, but simply that harmful consequences resulted from the product or entity. In 2017, the Public Utilities Commission refused San Diego’s Electric and Gas from recovering $380 million with rate hikes. This bitterly fought contest served as a beacon of alarm for California utility companies. In the past, the commission usually allowed rate hikes to soften a portion of the utility company’s fire liability. Recently, a bill – Senate Bill 901- was passed and signed by the governor, to allow the PUC to determine if the company was liable and to pass some of the damages onto end users. The bill was bitterly opposed by the homeowners insurance companies since they may be unable to hold utility companies fully liable for damages.

Criminal Negligence Charges

The Cal Fire report, removing the determination of negligent civil behavior by PG&E in the Cascade Fire, was provided to the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office. After reviewing their options, no charges were filed against PG&E for criminal negligence.

PG&E Responds to Report

The company said it would review Cal Fire’s report to better understand it. While that is being done, PG&E said it was taking steps to reduce fire liability. Some actions were:

  • Removing hazardous vegetation.
  • Working to improve weather forecasting capabilities.
  • Strengthening lines and utility poles in high-risk areas.
  • Working to upgrade the emergency warning system.

California Wildfire Lawyers

I’m Ed Smith, a California wildfire lawyer. As California residents, we all must be responsible for preventing wildfires. When a fire destroys our property or takes the life of a family member, we also have the right to recover damages. If you face this tragedy, you need the help of an experienced wildfire attorney. Reach out to me at (916) 921-6400 in Sacramento and the surrounding area for free and friendly advice. Otherwise, call me on my toll-free line at (800) 404-5400 or use our convenient contact us page at my website, which I own and found.

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