Thursday, July 5, 2018
Court of Appeal:
Utility Company Did Not Maliciously Start Butte Wildfire
By SHANE PATRICK ETCHISON, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal has granted Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s writ petition, deciding that plaintiffs raised no triable facts indicating the investor-owned utility was malicious in causing the 2015 “Butte fire” by failing to remove a leaning tree that fell and hit a power pole.
The wildfire—which started in Amador County and spread over 70,868 acres, taking two lives—prompted lawsuits against the company by in excess of 2,050 plaintiffs. The consolidated complaint filed on behalf of those plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that Pacific Gas and Electric Company (“PG&E”) was liable for punitive damages under Civil Code section 3294.
The utility company moved for summary adjudication on that issue, which Sacramento Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner initially indicated he was willing to grant. After further briefing, however, he denied the request.
Justice Jonathan K. Renner wrote Monday’s opinion granting the company’s request for a writ ordering that the motion for summary adjudication be granted.
Malice, Renner he noted, is defined in section 3294 as being either an intent to cause injury or “despicable conduct” which the defendant does “with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
Renner acknowledged that the power company’s conduct may have indeed been negligent, but he dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that it was despicable. Describing that conduct, he wrote:
“In seeking summary adjudication, PG&E submitted evidence that the company devotes significant resources to vegetation management programs, which are intended to minimize the risk of wildfire.”
The plaintiffs argued that those programs had not prevented a tree from falling on a power line and sparking the fatal blaze after PG&E’s contractors removed the two trees supporting that one. As they saw it, the inefficacy of the utility’s programs was itself malicious.
Rejecting that contention, Renner said:
“That PG&E adopted policies that failed to prevent the Butte Fire does not, without more, raise a triable issue as to malice,” he wrote.
The jurist quoted the 2002 Court of Appeal opinion in Romo v. Ford Motor Co. as saying that liability for punitive damages under §3294 requires evidence that “permits a clear and convincing inference that within the corporate hierarchy authorized persons acted despicably in ‘willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.’ ”
“Plaintiffs have failed to present any such evidence.”
Renner’s opinion only addressed punitive damages under section 3294. It did not consider whether PG&E might be liable for punitive damages under Public Utilities Code section 2106, which the plaintiffs also requested in their complaint.
Nor did the opinion address PG&E’s liability for any of the causes of action in the complaint, which include negligence, wrongful death and survival, inverse condemnation, public nuisance, private nuisance, premises liability, trespass, and various statutory violations.
The case is Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Superior Court, C085308.
The parent company of PG&E indicated in its latest quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it estimated potential Butte fire losses to the company to be at least $1.1 billion.
In that same filing, the company noted that it is under investigation for causing other, more recent fires across California.
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