Victims of lethal Wine Country fire in Sonoma County will get day in court against PG&E

PG&E must face in a state court — and potentially in front of a jury — victims of a lethal inferno that scorched portions of Sonoma County and Napa County in October 2017, a judge ruled on Friday as part of the utility’s bankruptcy case.

Judge Dennis Montali, who is supervising PG&E’s $51.69 billion federal bankruptcy filing, ruled that a state court is the correct venue to determine PG&E’s potential liability in connection with a deadly blaze known as the Tubbs Fire.

PG&E had wanted Montali to make an official determination, as part of the bankruptcy proceeding, of what PG&E’s potential liability should be in connection with the Tubbs wildfire.

The decision to move the Tubbs liability proceeding out of the bankruptcy court and into the venue of a full-blown trial meets, in Montali’s view, a key goal of all the parties involved.

“A just resolution of the claims of victims of the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California in recent years” is how Montali described those crucial goals in his court ruling Friday.

A jury trial on the Tubbs fire liability, accompanied by a legal review of the causes of the inferno and any possible liability for PG&E, is the appropriate way to proceed, the bankruptcy judge determined.

In January, state fire investigators announced the Tubbs Fire was caused by a malfunction of private equipment at a residence in the Napa County town of Calistoga. The fire eventually engulfed part of Sonoma County, roared through Santa Rosa and killed 22 people.

However, attorneys for Tubbs Fire victims believe they can present evidence that shows the power was out at the residence prior to the start of the blaze at that location. That evidence could shift the blame back to PG&E.

San Francisco-based PG&E has noted that the Cal Fire official written report regarding the Tubbs Fire concluded that PG&E facilities didn’t cause the inferno.

PG&E, which is already a convicted felon for crimes it committed before and after a fatal gas explosion in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight, filed for bankruptcy in January, hoping to reorganize its shattered finances that buckled beneath the pressure of a mounting array of liabilities, debts, and wildfire-linked claims.

“The debtors (PG&E and Pacific Gas and Electric) are correct when they state that resolution of the Tubbs fire proceedings is central to this (bankruptcy) case,”  Montali stated in his ruling. “However, commencement of this (Tubbs fire) litigation, while connected to the bankruptcy, will not interfere with the bankruptcy case. The state court trial may proceed on a parallel track to the proceedings in this court.”

In a separate ruling Friday,  Motali allowed PG&E to retain the exclusive right to craft a detailed plan for the reorganization of its finances and to sketch its path out of insolvency.

“Most important to the court, the parties, the fire victims, and all other concerned citizens of Northern California, is to find a clear path to reach the goal of compensation for the fire victims who are involuntary creditors of PG&E and Pacific Gas and Electric, as well as for the contractual claims of their voluntary creditors,” the judge ruled in his decision regarding the PG&E reorganization plan.