Almost 100 of the 1,856 individuals who are suing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over losses caused by the Butte Fire have agreed to settlements with the utility company and its contractor Trees Inc., according to a court document.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants said in a joint case management statement filed Nov. 18 that 53 households including 98 plaintiffs and a total of 123 individuals (some of whom were not named plaintiffs) have settled their claims.
The Butte Fire that began Sept. 9, 2015, burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 Calaveras County homes as well as hundreds of barns, sheds and well houses. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded in a report issued in April that a tree trimming crew hired by PG&E failed to remove a gray pine that later fell, contacted a power line, and started the fire.
Attorney Steve Campora, one of several lawyers representing those who lost property in the Butte Fire, said initially that settlement negotiations focused on plaintiffs who, because of health or age, most urgently needed the money. Now, however, he said
settlement talks are expanding and could ultimately include all plaintiffs.
“What you are seeing in that joint statement is that PG&E is continuing to try to settle the cases rather than going to trial,” Campora said.
If all plaintiffs are satisfied with their settlement offers, then the case won’t need to go to trial. “That is what happened in (the) San Bruno (gas line explosion), everything settled,” Campora said.
“As long as they fairly compensate the people, it is possible that all the cases can settle,” Campora said.
The exact amount of the settlements for property losses is confidential. However, in its quarterly filings with the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission, PG&E estimated that $350 million is the “lower end of the range of its reasonably estimated losses.” The company said it is unable to estimate the upper end of the range of estimated losses.
If payouts end up at the low end total, that would equal an average of $188,577 for each of the 1,856 named plaintiffs.
PG&E likely won’t be done once it pays for losses to property owners. Cal Fire has vowed to take legal action to recover what it spent to extinguish the fire. Right now, the agency estimates that cost at $90 million.
“We are working on what is called the cost report package. That is a meticulous and time consuming endeavor,” Cal Fire Deputy Director of Public Information Janet Upton said Friday.
Although the agency has not yet filed either a letter of demand or a lawsuit, it plans to do so once the full cost accounting is complete, Upton said. Preparing the total cost is time consuming, in part, because Cal Fire must total what it paid to the hundreds of other fire agencies that provided assistance during the Butte Fire, she said.
Calaveras County officials also announced seven months ago that they would seek compensation from for the county government’s losses caused by the fire. Neither Calaveras County Administrative Officer Shirley Ryan nor County Counsel Megan Stedtfeld had responded Monday to earlier inquiries about the status of that claim.
Meanwhile, the Butte Fire cases are being handled in Sacramento County Superior Court, which has the large facility and judicial staff required for such a complex legal proceeding. The parties continue to make progress toward trial. According to the Nov. 18 statement, 18 witnesses have been deposed, including ten PG&E witnesses, three from tree-removal contractors, two from Cal Fire, and three other witnesses.
Also, the statement notes that more plaintiffs – possibly including Cal Fire and Calaveras County – could still be added should they file suit. The statement said, “The parties expect that additional individual plaintiffs will file complaints and petitions to the court to add on to the coordinated proceeding.”
Judge Allen H. Sumner is overseeing the proceedings and at least two other judges are assisting by refereeing other pre-trial aspects of the case such as mediation and discovery. Eight major law firms and dozens of attorneys are working on the cases.
The Butte Fire cases are scheduled to be back in Sacramento Superior court on Thursday for a case management conference. The Nov. 18 statement indicated that the parties could ask to set a trial date during a case management conference in January.