California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) could face criminal charges if it is found to have caused any of the state’s recent wildfires, according to California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
In a brief filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the state attorney general’s office noted that if PG&E is found to have caused any of the recent wildfires and to have acted with malice in the operation and maintenance of its equipment, the company could face criminal charges that may even include murder.
PG&E could also face lesser charges depending on how it acted prior to the start of the wildfires. For instance, the company may face charges of involuntary manslaughter if it failed to clear vegetation around power lines and plants, or other felony charges for acting recklessly. The attorney general’s brief stated that prosecutors would need to investigate further in order to determine PG&E’s “mental intent” surrounding the fires and the resulting deaths.
PG&E has already acknowledged that its equipment may have been the source of the Camp Fire. Originating on November 8, 2018 in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Camp Fire destroyed 240 square miles of land, nearly 14,000 homes, and most of the city of Paradise. It also claimed at least 88 lives, making the Camp Fire California’s deadliest wildfire to date.
The utility company made this acknowledgement after Judge William Alsup of the District of Northern California ordered PG&E to respond to a series of questions about the fires, including questions about the utility’s power line safety practices.
PG&E had reported an outage near the time and place the fire began. The company also reported a second transmission line malfunction near the same time, which may have started a second fire.
Judge Alsup is currently overseeing a separate case against PG&E in district court, in which 8 people died and dozens were injured after a natural gas pipeline exploded south of San Francisco in 2010.
The judge asked for answers regarding the Camp Fire as part of an attempt to determine whether PG&E has violated the part of that sentence that required the company not to engage in any additional crimes. If PG&E acted intentionally or recklessly with regards to one or more wildfires, the court may find that the company committed another crime in violation of the sentencing requirements from the pipeline case.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) assigned responsibility to PG&E for 8 different wildfires in 2017. The fires caused 44 deaths and over $3 billion in insured property losses, according to Cal Fire.
With an estimated total of $30 billion damages from wildfires over the last two years, PG&E has announced that intends to file for bankruptcy as early as January 29, 2019. This announcement has led to an almost 50% drop in PG&E shares and may lead to calls for electricity services to be taken over by local governments in some areas.
Potential Experts and Their Role in the PG&E Case
At the heart of the criminal liability arguments against PG&E are questions of intent: What did the company know about the consequences of certain actions? How did it act in the face of that knowledge?
If PG&E is found to have understood that particular actions – such as failing to maintain certain power equipment or failing to clear dead brush around power lines or stations – could lead to death, but chose to pursue those actions, the company is more likely to face serious felony charges. For instance, allowing dangerous conditions to continue with either the intent to cause death or with no regard for whether or not deaths resulted could expose PG&E to charges of murder.
By contrast, if PG&E is found to have behaved in a reckless manner in the face of wildfire risks, or to simply have failed to take reasonable care to prevent fires, the company may face lesser criminal charges, such as involuntary manslaughter.
To make their respective arguments as to PG&E’s knowledge and intent, both California prosecutors and the utility company are likely to rely on expert witnesses in the energy field, as well as experts with knowledge of wildfires. Each side will likely use their experts’ knowledge and testimony to build their own picture of what PG&E knew or understood about the likelihood of certain power utility practices causing a wildfire.
In addition, experts on the cause and development of wildfires may be asked to provide their opinions on whether PG&E’s equipment or practices could have started a particular fire, and if so, how that fire could have been started. Because the case focuses on questions of intent and proper maintenance of power equipment, these experts may also be asked to opine on whether PG&E took appropriate steps to reduce the risk that their equipment or practices would cause a fire.