2017 Wine Country Wildfires
An LA Times special report observes that dozens of investigators have already spent weeks “scouring wine country trying to solve the mystery at the heart of the most destructive wildfires in California history.” Their core question? What caused these infernos that destroyed over 8,000 buildings and killed 43 people? The paper notes that insured losses alone will exceed $1 billion, with full losses significantly higher — “[j]ust fighting the fires cost $189 million.” While it will likely be months before an official cause is determined, “there is already one prime suspect: utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric.”
And as the Times points out, “Even if no power lines started the fires, PG&E could still be found to have contributed to their spread.”
Lieff Cabraser represents clients who have suffered losses from these fires and the related devastation of the North Bay area.
California Insurance Department Warns of Insurers’ Giving False Information to Policyholders
Reports have emerged in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere that some insurers are giving fire victims wrong information about their rights under California law. Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones issued a statement indicating that he had directed the California Department of Insurance to send a formal notice to insurers and licensed public adjusters to make sure all claims adjusters assigned to wildfire claims are properly trained on all laws relating to property and casualty insurance claim handling.
Several fire survivors provided examples to the Department of misleading information including incorrect and reduced time frames as short as 6 months for collecting full replacement costs for rebuilding (policyholders in fact have no less than 24 months under CA law); information that if policyholders decide to rebuild in a different location they cannot receive full benefits (false); and that additional living expense benefits would expire in 12 months (the correct time is 24 months). Consumers needing assistance can contact the Department of Insurance directly at 800 927-4357.
Background on the Fires
A series of fires in Northern California wine country have killed 43 people and seriously injured over 100. They have destroyed approximately 240,000 acres and 8,889 buildings, including thousands of homes as well as wineries, farms, hotels and restaurants, and retail businesses. Nearly 100,000 people have been displaced across Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties, with many still unable to return home or without homes to return to. These fires are the most destructive in California history, and property and business losses are expected to be in the billions.
Cal Fire has already started investigating the sources of the disastrous fires, and though they say it’s too early to speculate on specific causes, the four locations already examined exhibit common features. SF Chronicle reporters noted that “Power lines ran near all of them, and at two locations, downed electric and telecommunications lines and broken tree branches had been surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape.” PG&E would not comment on the findings, but the San Jose Mercury News reports that the company has been aggressively urging state regulators to make it easier for the company to charge ratepayers – rather than its own shareholders – when its power lines and other electrical equipment cause wildfires.
PG&E Files to Keep Lawsuits Separated
On November 9, 2017, PG&E filed a motion with California’s Judicial Council for Coordinated Proceedings arguing that the 15 pending lawsuits against the company should not be consolidated before a single judge in San Francisco. The company contends the fires are all separate and different, and the lawsuits should all go before different judges in separate geographic areas. No decision on the motion has been made by the judicial council.
Post-Fire Reports Begin to Emerge, Fire Causes Still Not Clear
Regulatory reports issued October 31st indicate that wind gusts drove uprooted trees and snapped branches into PG&E power lines while in other locations power poles failed and knocked lines down entirely. State officials are acting quickly to release PG&E’s fire incident info, but point out that at this point the only data available reflect PG&E’s “first impressions” of what happened. In the days after the fires began, PG&E initially blamed “hurricane strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases” for damaging its equipment. Separate weather station readings found the winds were almost half that speed as the lines started to come down.
Earlier reports going back to 2013 identified 60 percent of the PG&E’s 113,000 miles of power lines as being at-risk of sudden failure. And at least one-fifth of the sytem — over 20,000 miles — is frail copper wire, “obsolete” and “more subject to breakage as it ages.” PG&E has already faced serious criticism for downgrading maintenance in favor of profits.
The new reports come out alongside updates on damages and losses, now estimated to top $3 billion. And more claims are coming, as noted by Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
Did Efforts By PG&E to Delay Mapping and Clearing Contribute to the Fires?
A Mercury News report dated October 22nd says California utilities helped delay efforts for nearly a decade to map where power lines posed the greatest risk of wildfires. State regulators have been trying to tighten regulations since 2007’s deadly San Diego fires sparked when wind knocked down power lines. PG&E and other utilities wouldn’t agree to stricter construction standards until maps were completed, then repeatedly sought delays, arguing in July 2017 that proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”
As Quartz.com has noted, PG&E successfully fought and won yet another delay against completing its mapping as late as October 6th. Two days later, the devastating fires began in and around Wine Country that would grow to burn more than 400 square miles and take at least 43 lives. As the fires began on October 8th, local fire crews visited more than 10 different PG&E power line locations in the wake of 911 calls reporting sparking wires and other problems. PG&E stated publicly back in July that the wider mapping would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”
As the San Francisco Chronicle notes, fieldwork auditors cited PG&E for late repairs and maintenance jobs “far more frequently than any other electric utility in the state.” On October 26th, the Mercury News published “PG&E’s Own Records Show the Utility Cannot Be Trusted,” an extraordinary editorial focusing on the utility’s “repeated failures to earn the Californians’ trust,” reminding readers that PG&E is “a convicted felon” due to its negligence that killed 8 and led to $1.6 billion in fines in the San Bruno gas disaster.
The editorial references state audits showing that PG&E violated electricity-grid safety regulations in the North Bay alone at least 11 times in the years prior to 2017’s ferocious wildfires and highlights newly-released 2015 and 2016 audits showing that PG&E failed “in thousands of instances over a five-year period to conduct timely inspections and work orders required by the state’s regulator in Sonoma and Napa counties.” As the editorial board notes, “That’s since the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes…. During the same five-year period, PG&E pocketed about $1 billion in profits every year.”
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. Early signs from these most recent fires point to the potential responsibility of PG&E, including reports from multiple locations of downed powerlines and exploding transformers as the fires were breaking out. The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) have announced that they are investigating PG&E and ordered it to preserve evidence all available evidence relating to the fires.
Unfortunately, PG&E has a long history of being implicated in wildfires and has paid large fines, verdicts and settlements for injuries and losses relating to these fires. PG&E is an investor-owned electric utility with publicly traded stock overseen by the PUC. It has repeatedly been found to have failed to properly maintain trees near powerlines and/or to have failed to supervise subcontractors it hires to do such maintenance, and to have diverted funds for maintenance to profits. PG&E took $1.41 billion in profits for 2016, up 58.4 percent from its profits in 2015.
Lieff Cabraser: Securing Justice for Northern 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.
Contact a Lawyer at Lieff Cabraser Today About Your 2017 California Fire Claims
If you have suffered losses from the Wine Country fires, whether injuries or property or business losses and would like to consult with a lawyer, please call us today in San Francisco at 415 956-1000 or use the form below to send us an email message.
About Lieff Cabraser
The National Law Journal has recognized Lieff Cabraser as one of the nation’s top plaintiffs’ law firms for fourteen years, and we are members of the NLJ’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List Hall of Fame. From 2011 through 2016, U.S. News and Best Lawyers selected Lieff Cabraser as a national “Law Firm of the Year.” For 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016, we were recognized in the category of Mass Torts Litigation/Class Actions – Plaintiffs. Only one law firm in each practice area receives the “Law Firm of the Year” designation.
In 2016, Benchmark Litigation named Lieff Cabraser to its “Top 10 Plaintiff Firms in America” list, the National Law Journal chose our firm as one of nine “Elite Trial Lawyers” nationwide, and Law360 selected Lieff Cabraser as one of the “Top 50 Law Firms Nationwide for Litigation,” highlighting our firm’s “laser focus” and noting that Lieff Cabraser routinely finds itself “facing off against some of the largest and strongest defense law firms in the world.” The publication separately noted that our firm “persists as a formidable agency of change, producing world class legal work against some of the most powerful corporate players in the world today.”
In 2017, Law360 named Lieff Cabraser one of six “California Powerhouse” firms for litigation, the only plaintiffs’ firm so honored. Our firm has received a number of other recent honors, awards, and recognition, including the National Law Journal’s “2017 Elite Trial Lawyers,” Law360’s “Most Feared Plaintiffs’ Firms,” and Benchmark Litigation’s “Top 10 Plaintiffs Firms in America.”