A federal judge said Tuesday he is unlikely to let Pacific Gas and Electric Co. stop a planned state court trial about the utility’s responsibility for the 2017 Tubbs Fire that ravaged the Santa Rosa area.
U.S. District Judge James Donato told a PG&E attorney at a hearing in San Francisco that he did not want to interfere with the state court proceedings as long as the trial remained on track to happen rapidly, as victims’ lawyers are seeking.
If the trial gets delayed too long, Donato said he “might take a look at it.” Otherwise, he said, “I don’t see any reason to rob the plaintiffs of their day in court.”
State investigators previously determined that the 2017 fire, which killed about two dozen people and destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, was started by a private electrical system. Fire victims’ attorneys said the state got it wrong, and they successfully convinced PG&E’s bankruptcy judge to let the matter proceed to a state court trial for a group of plaintiffs.
PG&E argued that Donato should determine the company’s obligations to victims of the Tubbs Fire instead of allowing a jury trial.
Donato is in charge of estimating how much money PG&E owes all fire victims as part of its bankruptcy case. That issue is before him, instead of in Bankruptcy Court, because federal law requires a U.S. District Court to determine how victims with personal death and wrongful injury claims are ultimately paid.
At Tuesday’s hearing, his first in the PG&E case, Donato made it clear he plans to move as quickly as possible. He wants to rely on “benchmarks” and expert testimony to estimate how much PG&E could be on the hook for and believes he could hold hearings in January that would wrap up in two or three weeks.
The Tubbs Fire trial could be happening during the same month. Lawyers in that case are due to appear before a San Francisco Superior Court judge on Monday, when they will ask to have the trial expedited, victims’ attorney Frank Pitre told Donato. Pitre said he believes a jury could deliver a verdict in February.
Donato would use the jury trial’s result to inform his estimate of PG&E’s wildfire costs.
The Tubbs Fire is the second-most destructive wildfire in state history — just after the 2018 Camp Fire, which was started by a faulty PG&E transmission tower. If PG&E is found responsible for the Tubbs Fire, the company’s bankruptcy would be billions of dollars more expensive than it would be otherwise.
On Monday, PG&E filed its plan to exit bankruptcy protection. It would reserve nearly $18 billion for fire claims, largely by creating two trusts. One would reimburse insurance companies for their payouts to fire victims, while the other would go to individuals who still have claims against PG&E.
Both trusts would be capped, and for individuals the collective limit would be $8.4 billion — far less than victims’ lawyers think their clients are owed.
Wildfire victims have until Oct. 21 to file a form saying they have a claim against PG&E if they haven’t done so already. PG&E has to resolve its bankruptcy case by the end of June in order to access a new fund that would protect it from future wildfire costs.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle