Southern California Wildfires
On September 23, 2020, the VC Star reported that Southern California Edison announced it had reached a $1.16 billion settlement with the insurance companies suing over the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslide disasters in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The utility announced the resolution in a news release, noting that Edison was making no admission of wrongdoing or liability as part of the agreement. In late 2019, Edison said its equipment was likely associated with the start of the Nov. 8, 2018, fire that burned nearly 97,000 acres, claimed three lives and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.
On October 10, 2019, new wildfires broke out in Southern California, including the Saddleridge Fire in northern Los Angeles and the Sandalwood Fire east of Los Angeles. These fires threaten hundreds of structures and thousands of acres, and have led to immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of families as firefighting efforts begin.
Lieff Cabraser serves as Co-Lead Counsel in consolidated lawsuits against Southern California Edison alleging its equipment contributed to the inferno, brought in the wake of the 2017 fires, and the subsequent mudslides in Montecito that killed 21 people. At the end of October 2018, SoCal Edison stated in a release that its equipment “was associated with an ignition point near Koenigstein Road in Santa Paula.”
After a thorough investigation, the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) has determined that the Koenigstein Fire, which began on the evening of December 4, 2017, was caused when a single energized conductor separated near an insulator on a power pole. The energized conductor fell to the ground along with molten metal particles and ignited the dry vegetation below. Both the Koenigstein Fire and the Thomas Fire started on the same electrical circuit. Hours after it began, the Koenigstein Fire merged with the Thomas Fire and collectively became known as the Thomas Fire.
The Ventura County Fire Department has released its report on the fire’s origins. According to the report, “the Thomas Fire was started by power lines coming into contact during high winds [and] the power line in question is owned by Southern California Edison.” The fire burned a total of 281,893 acres, destroying 1,063 structures and resulting in one civilian and one firefighter fatality.
On October 30th, 2018, Southern California Edison issued a statement admitting that its own electrical equipment was associated with causing “one of at least two origin points for the Thomas Fire” of 2017. SoCal Edison further acknowledged that it was cooperating with investigations being conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (“CAL FIRE”), the Ventura County Fire Department, and the California Public Utilities Commission’s Safety & Enforcement Division, as well as continuing to provide detailed information to the federal Securities & Exchange Commission.
With this information release, SoCal Edison confirms earlier witness reports that claimed from early on that SoCal Edison’s power pole equipment had ignited the Thomas Fire at the Koenigstein Road location. The company also stated that it has not yet determined whether its equipment ignited the portion of the Thomas Fire that started at the Anlauf Canyon area. SoCal Edison says it cannot provide further information until it gets access to its equipment that CAL FIRE removed for its own direct examination and detailed review. You can read a copy of the full update published by Southern California Edison.
On January 24, 2018, Lieff Cabraser and co-counsel filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Southern California Edison Company and Edison International for personal and business losses from the 2017-2018 Thomas Fire and Mudslides that occurred as a result of SCE’s alleged failure to properly and safely maintain its electrical infrastructure in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.
“It’s hard to describe the damage these fires and mudslides caused without sounding apocalyptic,” said Lieff Cabraser’s Robert Nelson, a partner in Lieff Cabraser’s San Francisco office. “Walls of mud crashing through neighborhoods and homes at the speed of cars, fire devastation and deaths that never should have happened had Southern California Edison honored its duties to properly build, inspect, and maintain its power lines and electrical equipment.”
Read a copy of the Class Action Complaint.
In October and December 2017, Cal Fire and the National Weather Service issued a series of warnings highlighting imminent impending wind conditions that carried serious risks of spreading and intensifying fires throughout southern California, including “the potential for very rapid spread…and extreme fire behavior.” Subsequently, on December 4, 2017, fires broke out in at least two locations across Ventura County, fires that would spread and combine to become known as the Thomas Fire, which would ultimately grow into the largest and seventh-most destructive fire in the history of California.
Along with other fires in the region, some of which were still burning over a month later, the areas affected by the Southern California Wildfires were declared a national disaster in January 2018, with over 1,000 structures damaged and at least two related deaths, and over 230,000 residents forced to evacuate their homes. The Thomas fire alone has burned an area larger than New York City, Washington D.C., and San Francisco combined.
Deadly Mudslides Following in the Wake of the SoCal Wildfires
Immediately following the Southern California wildfires, heavy rainfall caused massive flooding and mudslides in Montecito. The neighborhood hit the hardest was directly below the area of the Thomas Fire, prone to debris flows because of the steep, rugged terrain and the nature of the fire. Because the fire burned exceptionally hot, it changed the physical properties of the soil to make it less absorbent and more erodible. The Thomas Fire also denuded the hillsides and made the dirt unstable, and left layers of ash which further reduce the underlying soil’s ability to absorb rainwater.
Thus far, twenty deaths have been reported and at least two dozen people remain unaccounted for. As of mid-January 2018, many residents still await rescue in their homes. Power failures caused by the slides affected more than 6,000 homes and businesses in the area, and many parts of Montecito have been left without drinkable water. The Montecito Mudslides are California’s most deadly flooding event in several years.
Prospective Claims for Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Loss of Property and Business Income
Lieff Cabraser is investigating a wide range of legal claims on behalf of displaced and injured residents and employees and business and home owners. As with PG&E in the October 2017 Wine Country fires, early signs point to potential responsibility of Southern California Edison (SCE), the local public utility, for the fires, including witness reports of high-voltage transmission lines snapping and transformers exploding as the fires were breaking out.
Investigations Into Southern California Edison’s Role in the December 2017 Southern California Wildfires
SCE released a press release on December 11 which announced that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Cal Fire are investigating the company’s role in the Thomas and other fires. SCE also admitted that it “believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities” and noted in its public releases that its equipment had been damaged in the fires.
Lieff Cabraser’s Work on Behalf of Fire and Accident Victims
Lieff Cabraser represents clients who suffered losses in these devastating 2017 fires. From our office in San Francisco, we have worked for more than 40 years to achieve significant and meaningful recoveries for individuals and businesses harmed by fires, toxic spills, and other environmental disasters.
Lieff Cabraser: Securing Justice for Californians Since 1972
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 affected communities. 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.
Lieff Cabraser served as Liaison and Lead Class Counsel in lawsuits relating to the 1991 Southern Pacific train car derailment and toxic pesticide spill over a 45-mile stretch of the Sacramento River, as Co-Liaison and Lead Class Counsel in coordinated litigation arising out of the 1993 release of a massive toxic sulfuric acid cloud which injured an estimated 50,000 residents of Richmond, California, and represented hundreds of property owners and businesses around Roane County, Tennessee that were harmed by the 2008 TVA/Kingston coal ash spill, the largest such spill in U.S. history