The PG&E bankruptcy judge gave Tubbs fire victims relief from legal limbo on Friday, allowing them to go to state court to try to make the case that the company sparked the most destructive of the North Bay wildfires.
Judge Dennis Montali's ruling lifts a legal log jam that is typically imposed in bankruptcy cases. While other fire victims still have to wait, his ruling gives attorneys for victims of the Tubbs fire permission to bring their case to San Francisco court now. The Tubbs fire destroyed entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and left 22 dead.
Tubbs stands as the only one of the major October 2017 fires that Cal Fire has determined PG&E’s equipment did not spark. Instead, the final report blames an unpermitted, substandard private hillside electrical system.
PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini, in arguing against a separate Tubbs fire trial, reminded the judge just this week that "Cal Fire has already concluded we did not start that fire."
But video evidence recently obtained by NBC Bay Area shows a flash that occurred near a PG&E power pole several minutes before the fire erupted. That flash coincided with a power outage that left the private electrical system that Cal Fire has blamed in the fire without power. Whle Cal Fire could not pinpoint where on that property the fire started, its report suggested the fire started before that flash cut off the power.
In light of the video, experts have called Cal Fire findings into question, and state Sen. Jerry Hill has called for Cal Fire to reopen its case. In a statement in advance of the hearing on the matter this week, however, Cal Fire said it is standing by its findings.
Tubbs plaintiff attorneys, meanwhile, told the court that a separate trial will be the best and fastest way to resolve the question. They assured the court they could have the case over by early next year, but PG&E's Orsini called that timetable unrealistic, given the complexity of the case.
In the end, Montali said a trial "will definitively bring a resolution" of the question and provide "an important data point that most likely will facilitate resolution of the wildfire" cases.
Another benefit, he said, is that it could help guide the court with what he acknowledged would be an "imperfect method" of estimating the total value of all wildfire claims against the company – likely in the tens of billions of dollars.
Montali appeared to side with wildfire victims’ attorneys who told the court that trial could start in as little as four months, especially since the law requires that the courts give priority to several elderly victims who have an urgent need to have their case heard.
He said such a trial "is likely to commence in an expeditious fashion" and granting the Tubbs victims’ motion would help meet the goal of a "just resolution" of their claims given the need to act promptly due to "bankruptcy considerations, moral duties, and even legislative deadlines." He cited the recent state law requiring a resolution of the case by the end of June to allow the company to put money in a pool for future wildfire compensation.
PG&E released a statement after Judge Montali’s ruling that says, "Regardless of the next legal steps, Cal Fire has already determined that the cause of the 2017 Tubbs Fire was not related to PG&E equipment. We intend to cooperate with the state court in order to help achieve the June 30, 2020 deadline to participate in the new state Wildfire Fund established by Assembly Bill 1054."