A Sacramento Superior Court judge will issue an order within 90 days on whether the Pacific Gas and Electric Company is liable for damages caused by the Butte Fire following a motion hearing Friday morning in the Sacramento County Superior Court.
Judge Allen Sumner presided over the hearing.
During the civil hearing, Judge Sumner heard competing motions from the plaintiffs and defense on the issue of inverse condemnation, or whether PG&E can be held liable for property damage sustained during the Butte Fire. Sumner also heard another PG&E motion for a determination as to whether enhanced damages apply to injuries sustained by victims.
Sumner took both motions under submission, which means he does not make an immediate decision, but both parties are bound to adhere to a determination that will be issued in an order within 90 days.
In two tentative rulings submitted to the Sacramento Superior Court website, an initial determination suggests that the court will side with the plaintiffs and hold PG&E legally liable for the damages.
The court document continues by determining that the Butte Fire was caused “by a public improvement as deliberately designed and constructed by PG&E.”
It is unclear how much money PG&E may be responsible for paying to the 2,056 plaintiffs if found culpable. A trial is tentatively set for August.
PG&E was issued two citations by the California Public Utilities Commission electric safety program totalling $8.3 million dollars at the end of April.
“We continue to extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and the communities that suffered losses as a result of the Butte Fire. Regardless of these decisions or the next legal steps, nothing is going to distract us from our important safety work. All of us at PG&E share the view that the safety of the public, our employees and contractors is our absolute core value and non-negotiable top priority,” said PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo in an emailed statement.
During Friday’s hearing, Judge Sumner heard oral arguments from both parties on all three of the motions submitted to the court. The judge additionally heard matters about the submission of exhibit lists, witness lists and motions prior to a hearing scheduled at 9 a.m. July 14 in Courtroom 42 of the Sacramento Superior Court.
The judge is expected to submit an additional order regarding the other matters sometime in the next week.
The Butte Fire ignited on Sept. 9, 2015, after a gray pine came into contact with a PG&E power line conductor, according to an analysis released by Cal Fire in April 2016. Investigators blamed the failure of the pine on the removal of two other trees by PG&E and/or its subcontractors months before the fire.
The fire burned more than 70,868 acres, killed two people, injured another and destroyed 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties.
Total losses were estimated by the California Department of Insurance at more than $300 million dollars.