Butte Wildfire Lawsuit

The Butte Wildfire raged for nearly a month through Amador and Calaveras counties in California, killing 3 people, destroying 475 homes and charring approximately 71,000 acres. The fire, which lasted from September 9-October 2, 2015, was ranked the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history. But what makes this fire even more tragic is that many people are alleging power utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) may have played a direct role in causing it.

Utter Devastation

Several areas were completely destroyed by the catastrophe, with the Mountain Ranch community in Calaveras County suffering a particularly high level of damage. About 950 structures, including 475 homes and 343 outbuildings, were a complete loss.

As a result, President Obama declared Calaveras County a disaster area, making residents eligible to apply for financial assistance from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) announced that people suffering losses might be eligible for help. Those who were underinsured or uninsured would be eligible, as well as those whose insurance settlements were delayed by 30 days or more.

FEMA also announced that monetary advances might be available to for those waiting for an insurance settlement. These advances could be used for several disaster-related expenses, including dental and medical insurance, emergency home repairs and others. Recipients would be required to repay the advance once their settlement money arrived.

Legal Recourse

Many people, however, realize that government money will only go so far in helping pick up the pieces from the devastating Butte Wildfire. As a result, they are considering legal action against PG&E, claiming the utility was negligent in clearing vegetation. According to a news report, a PG&E spokesperson said a preliminary investigation showed that a tree touched a live power line owned by the company, sparking the blaze.

Plaintiffs in potential lawsuits may be able to sue for several different types of damages, including displacement expenses (approximately 13,000 residents had to evacuate due to the fire), lost wages, loss of property and others.

A Dubious History

This is not the first time PG&E has been the target of a wildfire-related lawsuit. In 1997, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the utility was found guilty of more than 700 counts of negligence resulting from a 1994 fire that destroyed 12 homes in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. PG&E was convicted of failing to properly trim trees near its power lines.

According to the newspaper, investigators with the California Department of Forestry determined that PG&E had been responsible for many other major wildfires due to the company’s failure to follow proper safety regulations. In fact, the paper reported that the utility has been hit with thousands of violations regarding tree trimming. The investigators in the Sierra Nevada case determined that a 21,000-volt power line touched a tree limb that should have been trimmed by PG&E.

According to the article, investigators had found hundreds of violations in Nevada County alone. Approximately 200 of these violations were called “burners” by the investigators, or incidents where vegetation contacted a power line.

California state law requires that there needs to be a minimum of 10 feet between high-voltage power lines and flammable vegetation.

The prosecutor at the trial, the paper reported, claimed that PG&E had established a “chronic and widespread pattern of corporate negligence.” He also claimed that PG&E ignored the vegetation trimming law in an effort to keep profits above $1 billion by cutting costs. In addition, internal documents released during the case showed that PG&E managers were praised for reducing costs associated with tree trimming. The utility is responsible for trimming trees and other vegetation along more than 100,000 miles of its lines in California.

Inverse Condemnation

California law follows a theory known as “inverse condemnation.” This is an instance where a governmental entity such as a public utility either seizes or damages private property without providing the required compensation. When claiming inverse condemnation as a cause of action in a lawsuit against a governmental entity in California, plaintiffs who win may be entitled to not only recover damages but also attorney’s fees.

How Baron & Budd Can Help

If you suffered losses due to the Butte Wildfire, you may be able to take legal action in an effort to obtain compensation for your damages. Please contact the national law firm of Baron & Budd by calling 866-804-7731 or contact us online. We will carefully listen to the details of your case and let you know how we may be able to help.