In a nine-page recommendation issued last week, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow said that although factual details of each of the fires may vary, the lawsuits filed against PG&E in wake of the "Northern California Firestorm" share legal issues making it necessary to organize them in one court, avoiding delays and the possibility of conflicting rulings. The recommendation has now been forwarded for a final decision on the location of the pretrial proceedings will be up to the state Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the courts.
“San Francisco County is best equipped to handle a single, coordinated proceeding,” Judge Karnow said in his ruling. The Judge identified that 96 lawsuits had been filed regarding the "Northern California Firestorm," in which more than a dozen large wildfires seemingly simultaneously broke out in early October 2017 and burned 8 Northern California counties. 68 have been filed in San Francisco, where PG&E has its headquarters, 21 in Sonoma County, and 7 in Napa County. It is believed that more than 900 individuals have joined the suits against PG&E, at least 10 of which already have more than 100 plaintiffs apiece. Almost all of these lawsuits claim that poorly maintained power lines were responsible for the blazes.
The Judge noted that San Francisco is PG&E’s hometown and said its courts, which accommodate electronic filing and have a department reserved for complex litigation, are best equipped to handle a coordinated proceeding.
The effort to consolidate the cases has been opposed by PG&E. It had attempted to evade initial consolidation based upon the uncertainty of how each of the fires started and/or spread throughout Northern California. It pursuing its line of argument, it presented evidence and argument that a private power line may have, in fact, started the deadly Tubbs fire that raced through Santa Rosa in October 2017, and became the most destructive wildfire in state history. It burned parts of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties in Northern California during October 2017. By the time of its containment on October 31, the fire was estimated to have burned 36,807 acres. The fire incinerated more than 5,100 structures, more than 4,400 homes in Sonoma County, including more than 2,800 in the city of Santa Rosa. In that city, the damage was estimated at $1.2 billion, with five percent of the city's housing stock destroyed. Presently, the death toll from the fire is believed to be 22.
However, PG&E was not the only one to oppose San Francisco oversight. Some of the plaintiff's attorneys from Santa Rosa had argued in favor of case coordination, but sought the case to be overseen in Sonoma County.
Regardless of the resolution of these lawsuits, PG&E may be required to reimburse property owners for economic damages if state investigators find that the power lines started the fires. Investigators with Cal Fire and the state Public Utilities Commission have not yet identified a cause for the Tubbs Fire or any of the other 29 fires that contributed to the catastrophe. 28 Cal Fire investigators are presently assigned to determine the cause of the wildfires, and determining causes could take years.