More than 100 wildfire suits against PG&E claim 'gross negligence' of equipment

- Three more families announced on Thursday they are suing Pacific Gas and Electric stemming from the North Bay wildfires last month, bringing the total number of lawsuits to more than 100 against the utility's poor maintenance of its high-voltage lines caused the Sonoma County fires that destroyed almost 7,000 homes and killed 23 people.

Nemesio Ruiz of Mendocino County s one of the plaintiffs who spoke at a news conference in San Francisco, describing the smoke and the wind the night the October fires broke out.

As of Wednesday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported there are 107 people who have filed nine separate complaints against PG&E in Sonoma County alone.  Coffey Park residents Wayne and Jennifer Harvell were the first to sue the utility eight days after the Tubbs fire leveled their house.

Their attorney, Bill Robins, has filed suits on behalf of about 25 other fire victims, the Press Democrat reported. Another Southern California-based firm has 70 clients and several other Sonoma County residents have separate filings, Robins said. San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who is representing many of the families of loved ones who died in Oakland's Ghost Ship fire last December, is representing three new families, comprising 12 people. 

Alexander said she is suing PG&E for "gross negligence" for allegedly failing to maintain their equipment, having downed lines spark, and allowing vegetation and trees, which they knew to be dangerously located close to the lines, causing the damage to property and lives in Santa Rosa and Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Butte counties.   

Robins has asked the San Francisco Superior Court to consolidate all the cases under one judge in anticipation of hundreds of more lawsuits.

Cal Fire is still investigating the cause of the fires which started under hot, windy conditions. A PG&E spokesman said the company was continuing to comply with the investigation.

In an email to KTVU on Thursday, PG&E Karly Hernandez wrote: “Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers and communities we serve. Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires.  We are aware that lawsuits have been filed. Beyond that, we’re going to be focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”

On Tuesday, state regulators Tuesday revealed that PG&E reported 20 “electric safety incidents” in eight counties the night of Oct. 8-9, including at least four locations in Sonoma County: Santa Rosa, Geyserville, Kenwood and Glen Ellen. It reported at least three locations in Napa County and one near Ukiah. The exact locations were redacted in the reports from the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E blamed heavy winds and downed trees for damaging its equipment, according to the reports.

That's not good enough, Alexander said.

"PG&E has a duty to maintain their electrical equipment so it does not topple, even during windy conditions," she said. "The equipment, trees and vegetation are required by law and regulation, including safety standards, to be "inspected and maintained by PG&E."  

She said the law asserts "a duty to keep vegetation properly trimmed and maintained so as to prevent contact with power lines."

She added that the power company "knew that if the power lines came into contact with or caused electricity to come into contact with vegetation it was probable that a fire would result and that, given the drought conditions, a resulting fire would likely result in the loss of life, significant damage to property, and these Plaintiffs."  She emphasized that over the past decade, PG&E has "been subject to numerous fines and penalties" over $1.6 billion for "failure to abide by safety rules and regulations… They have failed and refused to modify their behavior."

Damage estimates for the fires have exceeded $3 billion.

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