Lieff Cabraser Civil Justice Blog
Northern California Wine Country Fires

Lieff Cabraser Files Class Action Lawsuit Against PG&E Over 2017 North Bay Fires

San Francisco–Lieff Cabraser announces that Sky Vineyards, Skyla Olds, Nancy Hitchcock and Herman Bossano, Rebecca Bailey and Charles Holmes, and Transitioning Families have filed a class action lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court against Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation (“PG&E”) and related parties for personal and business losses from the 2017 Northern California wildfires (the “North Bay Fires”) that occurred as a result of PG&E’s failure to properly and safely maintain its electrical infrastructure throughout the North Bay region.

The October 2017 North Bay Fires

Beginning late in the evening on or about October 8, 2017, fires broke out in several locations in Northern California and rapidly spread through Butte, Calaveras, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Solano, Sonoma, and Yuba counties. These North Bay Fires have been the most destructive in California’s modern history. The conflagration was so massive that NASA satellites could see the smoke from the Fires from space.

For those who witnessed the destruction firsthand, the Fires were a horrifying and unfathomable sight. Bright orange flames forty, fifty, and even one hundred feet high barreled down over the hills. Sparks “thicker than any snowstorm” flew parallel to the ground, and embers rained down like confetti. The region’s bucolic scenery was overwhelmed by the roaring of the Fires’ loud “freight train” sound.

The series of severe wildfires devastated nearly 250,000 acres across nine Northern California counties, and more than 14,700 homes, 728 businesses and 3,600 vehicles have been damaged or destroyed, along with similar damage to vineyards, other agriculture, and livestock. One hundred thousand residents have been displaced. Not all were able to escape. The deadliest fires in California history the North Bay Fires have killed forty-three people, and one hundred and eighty five have been injured. The fires also resulted in 2,269 missing persons reports.

As the complaint alleges, these Fires had different points of origin, but were all sparked by unsafe electrical infrastructure owned, operated and (improperly) maintained by PG&E Corporation and Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

“As our complaints allege, these fires shared common causes – they were sparked by PG&E’s unsafe electrical infrastructure,” said Elizabeth Cabraser, one of plaintiffs’ co-counsel. “These preventable Fires have destroyed and disrupted Californians’ homes, businesses, livelihoods, and lives on an unprecedented scale. All of those harmed have a stake in the swiftest possible determination of liability, and in the fair and inclusive allocation of damages and compensation.”

The Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Sky Vineyards is a family-run vineyard and winery that has been in operation for more than thirty years. Before the fires, the property spanned two hundred acres and included Sky’s vineyards, winery building, and a home also used as an office. The vast majority of the forested acreage and the vineyards were burned in the Fires. The home office was completely destroyed along with all of the personal property and business records inside. The Fires also destroyed outbuildings and business equipment on the property. A substantial portion of the vines have been damaged or destroyed, as has wine that was aging or stored.

Plaintiff Skyla Olds suffered economic and other damages because of the Fires. Forced to evacuate her rental home in the middle of the night, her escape was traumatic and greatly distressing to Ms. Olds. The Fires destroyed the home and the majority of her belongings, including original artwork and irreplaceable sentimental items. Dealing with the aftermath of the fires has forced her to stop working as a criminal defense attorney and spend all her time addressing fire-caused issues, such as fire-related erosion, and managing the recovery of Sky Vineyards.

Plaintiffs Nancy Hitchcock and Herman Bossano are a husband and wife who lived in their home in Santa Rosa, California, for twelve years. After losing power the night of the Fires, Ms. Hitchcock called PG&E several times but never received any response. After hearing what sounded like transformer explosions on the street she and her husband evacuated, getting out only minutes before their house exploded. That night the Fires completely destroyed their home, two cars, and all of their personal possessions. Both elderly Ms. Hitchcock and Mr. Bossano are suffering from depression and anxiety because of the stresses and total loss of their home caused by the Fires.

Plaintiffs Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D., and Charles Holmes were longtime residents of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, California, occupying their home and ranch since 2002. The North Bay Fires completely destroyed their home, two vehicles, and a horse trailer.  Their family was uprooted and lost everything: all of their personal possessions, priceless memories, and many antiques. Charles Holmes, a professional chef, lost thirty years of recipes. They also lost several irreplaceable pieces of original art.

Plaintiff Transitioning Families is a therapy practice run by nationally recognized trauma therapist Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D. Transitioning Families’ clients specifically sought out the peaceful and beautiful environment of wine country to help them heal from trauma as well as to adjust to difficult changes in their lives. After the Fires, Ms. Bailey’s work from her clients has diminished because the clients do not wish to travel to a devastated area. Her business has also been affected by the stress of losing her home and having to deal with the recovery effort.

The Class Action Complaint

The class action complaint specifically alleges claims against PG&E on behalf of plaintiffs for property damage, economic losses, and disruption to their homes, businesses, lives, and livelihoods grounded in negligence, inverse condemnation, trespass, private and public nuisance, and premises liability, as well as violations of the California Public Utilities Code and the California Health & Safety Code, among other causes of action. The case is brought as a class action because plaintiffs strongly believe all those who suffered such damages and losses should be fairly treated and included as beneficiaries of a comprehensive and consistent adjudication or resolution of liability and damages.

As noted in the complaint, PG&E had a duty to properly maintain its electrical infrastructure and ensure surrounding trees and vegetation were trimmed and kept at a safe distance. PG&E violated that duty by knowingly operating aging, improperly maintained infrastructure that it “ran to failure.” In fact, PG&E’s violations had caused fires before, and PG&E had been sanctioned numerous times for this. Yet PG&E’s corporate culture emphasized cutting corners. As a result of PG&E’s corporate policy of putting profits over public safety, plaintiffs and others like them saw their homes, businesses, farms, and vineyards damaged or destroyed, lost  money and business, and will spend years trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Had PG&E acted responsibly, these fires could have been prevented.

“It is heartbreaking to consider that the losses and deaths suffered by the victims of the 2017 North Bay fires could have been prevented had PG&E upheld its duties to its customers and adequately and safely maintained its power lines and related electrical infrastructure as mandated by law,” notes plaintiffs’ co-counsel Lexi Hazam. “We hope our lawsuit will work to provide justice to those devastated by the fires, and help raise awareness of the serious fire dangers still present in thousands of similar PG&E works and systems throughout Northern California.”

The complaint seeks compensation for plaintiffs’ real and personal property losses, loss of wages and earning capacity, business profits, displacement expenses, and punitive damages, among other claims. Fire victims and other interested parties can learn more about the lawsuit at lieffcabraser.com/north-bay-fires.

About Lieff Cabraser

Lieff Cabraser has a long history of successfully championing the rights of those injured or who have lost property and businesses as a result of fires and other environmental disasters. Several of Lieff Cabraser’s attorneys live in the communities affected by the North Bay Fires. Over the last 45 years, we have assisted our clients in recovering over $118 billion in verdicts and settlements. Our firm helped lead litigation against BP over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil spill, successfully representing property owners, business owners, wage earners, and other harmed parties. Lieff Cabraser was also appointed by the court to lead litigation on behalf of homeowners, businesses and employees who suffered economic injuries relating to 2015 Plains pipeline oil spill in Santa Barbara, and also helps lead two class action cases on behalf of homeowners and businesses who suffered losses from the 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak in Southern California.

Source/Contact

Lexi Hazam
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein
275 Battery Street, Suite 2900
San Francisco, CA 94111
415 956-1000
lhazam@lchb.com