San Francisco Chronicle | By Joaquin Palomino and David R. Baker

Just before 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, a tree branch fell into a power line in the town of Kenwood east of Santa Rosa as sparks were scattered by heavy winds. Local emergency officials contacted Pacific Gas and Electric Co., asking the utility to immediately evaluate the damage because of the evening’s dangerous fire conditions.

It was one of the first reported electrical disturbances in Sonoma County the night that numerous fires erupted across the North Bay, and would prove a harbinger of things to come.

As the night progressed, county dispatchers recorded 111 fire and medical emergencies, from a thick smell of smoke near the coast to flames scorching a creek trail in central Santa Rosa. Nearly half of those incidents mentioned downed or sparking power lines, blown transformers or other concerns with PG&E’s equipment, a Chronicle review of dispatch logs shows.

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State regulators have released previously withheld details in reports filed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. revealing the exact location of damaged transmission equipment found near the ignition points of the wildfires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties in October.

The documents — including the precise address and specific types of damaged equipment — provide new information about the proximity of PG&E equipment to the origins of the deadly Oct. 8 fires.
Cal Fire officials say their investigation is not complete, and PG&E officials stressed no causes of the fires have been identified. Nevertheless, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against PG&E alleging the fires were sparked when gale force winds sent overgrown tree limbs crashing into powerlines.

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While the Pacific Northwest is enjoying benign, moist weather, strong winds continue to hit California.  For example, here are the maximum gusts above 35 mph) for the 24-h ending 9 AM this morning (Sunday).  A number of locations both in central/northern and southern CA hit that threshold, with several exceeding 50 mph (red colors)

Southern California is particularly impressive, with 50-70 mph gusts observed both east and west of LA.  LA itself is somewhat protected by the higher section of the San Gabriel mountains.

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Associated Press | SAN FRANCISCO — Devastating California wildfires this year — and expectations of more to come under the extremes of climate change — prompted regulators Thursday to toughen rules for utility companies to keep power lines clear of brush and tree branches that can easily spark into flames.

Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker called the regulations adopted unanimously by the board “a major rewrite” of the state’s fire-prevention rules for utilities as climate change drives up wildfire risks in much of California.

In a year when the state’s fire season threatens to go year-round, state officials “accept and acknowledge that the scope of the problem is changing,’ Picker said.

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Mental Distress Proximately Caused by a Trespass or Nuisance is Recoverable as Annoyance and Distress Damages, Regardless of the Personal Physical Presence of the Owners at the Time of the Trespass or Nuisance.

In the aftermath of the San Diego fires, judicial authority helps shed light on the potential permissible claims against PG&E for the October 2017 North California fires. In Hensley V. San Diego Gas & Electric Co., 213 Cal.Rptr.3d 803, 7 Cal.App.5th 1337 (Cal. Ct. App. 2017), the California Court of Appeals stated:

“SDG & E does not dispute that emotional distress damages are recoverable in trespass and nuisance cases.That proposition is indeed settled: Our high court and lower courts have long held that once a cause of action for *1349 trespass or nuisance is established, a landowner may recover for annoyance and discomfort, including emotional distress or mental anguish, proximately caused by the trespass or nuisance. (Acadia, California, Limited v. Herbert (1960) 54 Cal.2d 328, 337, 5 Cal.Rptr. 686, 353 P.2d 294 [“It is settled that, regardless of whether the occupant of land has sustained physical injury, he may recover damages for the discomfort and annoyance of himself and the members of his family and for mental suffering occasioned by fear for the safety of himself and his family when such discomfort or suffering has been proximately caused by a trespass or a
nuisance”]; Herzog v. Grosso (1953) 41 Cal.2d 219, 225–226, 259 P.2d 429 ; Kornoff v. Kingsburg Cotton Oil Co. (1955) 45 Cal.2d 265, 271–272, 288 P.2d 507 (Kornoff ); Plotnik v. Meihaus (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1590, 1607, 146 Cal.Rptr.3d 585 ; Hassoldt v. Patrick Media Group, Inc. (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 153, 172, 100 Cal.Rptr.2d 662 , disapproved on another ground in People v. Rogers (2013) 57 Cal.4th 296, 330–331, 159 Cal.Rptr.3d 626,
304 P.3d 124 ; Armitage v. Decker (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 887, 905, 267 Cal.Rptr. 399 [“The general rule is simply that damages may be recovered for annoyance and distress, including mental anguish, proximately caused by a trespass”]; Koll–Irvine Center Property Owners Assn. v. County of Orange (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1036, 1042, fn. 3, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 664 [“Damages for emotional distress can be recovered in an action for private nuisance”;
citing cases]; Smith v. County of Los Angeles (1989) 214 Cal.App.3d 266, 287–288, 262 Cal.Rptr. 754 [“ ‘[M]ental distress caused by the nuisance created and maintained by the defendant is an element of loss of enjoyment’ ”; citing Acadia, supra, 54 Cal.2d at p. 337, 5 Cal.Rptr. 686,
353 P.2d 294 ]; Smart v. City of Los Angeles (1980) 112 Cal.App.3d 232, 239–240, 169 Cal.Rptr. 174 ; Alonso v. Hills (1950) 95 Cal.App.2d 778, 780, 786–788, 214 P.2d 50 .)”

In Hensley, the utility company denied emotional distress damages were recoverable by fire victims who were not home at the time the damage to their property occurred. The Court concluded that mental distress proximately caused by a trespass or nuisance is recoverable as annoyance and distress damages, regardless of the personal physical presence of the owners at the time of the trespass or nuisance.

Thus there is legal authority for property owners to recover emotional distress damages, even if they were not home at the time of the fires. For those victims who were present and fled for their lives, the damages claims are even clearer.

* This information is provided to supply relevant information concerning the PG&E lawsuits, and should not be received as legal advice. If you are already represented by legal counsel please rely upon them for information and advice. No guarantees or representations about the success of the PG&E lawsuits can be drawn from this information. You can call Hansen&Miller to get your questions answered at 707-575-1040.

Your insurance policy may have contractual limits on the amount paid for loss of a mature tree like $500 to $750 per tree, and may also include a maximum cap on tree losses. However, those who caused the fires that damaged or destroyed trees can be sued for actual value and not some artificial contractually limited value. In addition to the fair market value of trees, California law also provides the possibility of recovering enhanced damages.

Many owners of property had trees killed or damaged by the October fires. California has specific statutes providing for damages and enhanced damages for injury to trees on property. Specifically, Section 3346 provides:

ARTICLE 3. Penal Damages [3344 – 3346]  ( Article 3 enacted 1872. )

(a) For wrongful injuries to timber, trees, or underwood upon the land of another, or removal thereof, the measure of damages is three times such sum as would compensate for the actual detriment, except that where the trespass was casual or involuntary, or that the defendant in any action brought under this section had probable cause to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or the land of the person in whose service or by whose direction the act was done, the measure of damages shall be twice the sum as would compensate for the actual detriment, and excepting further that where the wood was taken by the authority of highway officers for the purpose of repairing a public highway or bridge upon the land or adjoining it, in which case judgment shall only be given in a sum equal to the actual detriment.”

The damage to trees and underwood on property can be compensated by double or even triple damages where there is willful or malicious conduct involved. The damages that can be tripled for tree damage or loss include the value of the replacement of the tree, the diminution in property value, the value of the tree, the cost of aftercare of the new tree, annoyance and discomfort from loss of the tree and/ or other related damages. The law may require or allow only certain remedies, for example you would not receive both the reduction in property value and the cost of a new equivalent tree.

Loss of trees can include damages for annoyance and discomfort. The damages for loss of trees is not limited to the value of the timber. Fulle v. Kanani, 7 Cal.App.5th 1305 (Cal. Ct. App. 2017). In Fulle, the California Court stated:

“The measure of damages to be doubled or trebled under sections 733  and 3346 is not limited to the value of the timber or the damage to the trees. The statutes have been interpreted to permit doubling or trebling the full measure of compensable damages for tortious injury to property. 3  (Salazar v. Matejcek (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 634, 643, 199 Cal.Rptr.3d 705  (Salazar ); Heninger v. Dunn (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 858, 861, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104  (Heninger ).) “The measure of damages in California for tortious injury to property is ‘the amount which will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby….’ (Civ. Code, § 3333 .) Such damages are generally determined as the difference between the value of the property before and after the injury.” (Heninger, at pp. 861–862, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 .) But “[d]iminution in market value … is not an absolute limitation; several other theories are available to fix appropriate compensation for the plaintiff’s loss.” (Id. at p. 862, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 .) For example, a plaintiff may recover the costs of restoring the property to its condition prior to the injury —even if such costs exceed diminution in value—so long as there is a  valid “personal reason” to do so. (Id. at p. 864, 162 Cal.Rptr. 104 ; see, e.g., Kallis v. Sones (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 1274, 1279–1281, 146 Cal.Rptr.3d  419  [doubling not only the amount of damages determined for the tree, but also the amount awarded for restoring the property, including installation of a new tree and aftercare costs].)”

The Court in Fulle held the treble damages for timber loss can apply to annoyance and discomfort damages associated with the loss of trees. Specifically, the Court stated:

“In order to harmonize these statutes and give full effect to each, we conclude that annoyance and discomfort damages resulting from tortious injuries to timber or trees are subject to the damage multiplier under sections 733  and 3346. Where, as here, the jury finds willful and malicious conduct by the defendant, the trial court must award double damages and has discretion to award treble damages for annoyance and discomfort. (See Ostling, supra, 27 Cal.App.4th at p. 1742, 33 Cal.Rptr.2d 391 .)” 

* This information is provided to supply relevant information concerning the PG&E lawsuits, and should not be received as legal advice.  If you are already represented by legal counsel please rely upon them for information and advice. No guarantees or representations about the success of the PG&E lawsuits can be drawn from this information. You can call Hansen&Miller to get your questions answered at 707-575-1040.

A tug-of-war is brewing over whether Sonoma County or San Francisco courts should handle the thousands of wildfire lawsuits expected to emerge against PG&E.

Lawyers representing one group of plaintiffs argue San Francisco is a better venue because the court is larger and has the administrative capacity for more complex cases. They have petitioned the California Judicial Council to appoint one San Francisco judge to oversee all pretrial matters including depositions, hearings and evidence disputes.

But other lawyers seeking damages against PG&E say the cases belong in Sonoma County where the fires charred about 100,000 acres, destroyed 4,000 homes and killed 23 people. They are seeking to block a move across the Golden Gate to PG&E’s headquarters city with their own Judicial Council motion.

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Paul Payne | The Press Democrat

As the number of October wildfire lawsuits against PG&E swelled close to 40, a group of Santa Rosa lawyers filed legal papers Friday seeking to consolidate them all in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The request made to the Judicial Council of California opposes a separate effort from a Southern California-based lawyer to have the cases overseen by a San Francisco court.

It argues the lawsuits belong in Sonoma County, where fires burned 137 square miles, killed 24 people and destroyed 5,130 homes. The most devastating of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, roared into northern Santa Rosa, wiping out whole neighborhoods from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park.

“The fact is this is a Sonoma County tragedy,” said attorney John Cox. “It’s where the evidence is located and where the witnesses are. It should be handled by Sonoma County courts.”

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Our firm will advance all costs of the litigation against PG&E and in the event there is no recovery we are owed no costs or fees. The costs of litigation is one issue in making the decision of which lawyer to hire. In a multi-billion-dollar suit against PG&E, the expenses will be significant. Not just any law firm can afford to pay millions of dollars in costs to fight a major corporation. You should not be afraid to ask any lawyer you want to hire, “how many millions of dollars is your firm prepared to spend?”

The massive expenses is why Hansen&Miller has teamed up with a nationally known firm with access to millions of dollars and a history of spending massive amounts in costs to fight for their clients. There are very few firms in the nation with pockets deep enough to fund a protracted fight against PG&E.

Another common question or concern of clients is ‘will the expenses of the case eliminate my recovery’? There are two types of expenses. First, a client might have unique or expenses specific to them. For example, assume you lost a collection of stamps or art. An appraiser for your specific loss might need to be hired to value your claim. In this event, you would know the need for the special expense and know about it before the expense was incurred.

The second type of expense would be general expenses spread across all clients to prove common issues of PG&E liability. While we cannot know what those expenses will be, let’s make some assumptions to see what an average cost award might look like. Let’s assume there are 2000 clients and $20 million spent on common expenses. The average cost per client would be $10,000. While costs would more fairly be divided based on the size of each clients’ recovery, the average is helpful to see that expenses can be quite minimal in the scenario outlined above. The losses of most clients would dwarf these average expenses. Thus while expenses is an issue you should be aware of, it is no more predictable than the amount of a potential recovery. Holding those accountable who burned down your house and seeking justice is important. If you have other issues you wish to learn about, do not hesitate to call. We are here to answer any questions or concerns you have, just give us a call at 707-575-1040.

* This information is provided to supply relevant information concerning the PG&E lawsuits, and should not be received as legal advice.  If you are already represented by legal counsel please rely upon them for information and advice. No guarantees or representations about the success of the PG&E lawsuits can be draw from this information. You can call Hansen&Miller to get your questions answered at 707-575-1040.