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PG&E admits to involuntary manslaughter

The Camp Fire burned through the Sierra Nevada hills with unprecedented fury for two weeks in late 2018. The cause of the state’s deadliest fire to date was determined to be faulty electrical equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The embattled and bankrupt utility faces civil suits regarding damages caused by this fire. Still, it now pleads guilty of 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for deaths caused by the fire and one felony count of unlawfully causing the fire. The second count addresses severe injuries to a firefighter and others as well as the destruction of multiple structures.

The settlements

The company settled with Butte County, which was the location of the ignition points, on March 17 and then filed in state Superior Court. The Butte County Superior Court and Federal Bankruptcy Court handling PG&E’s case must still approve the settlement. As part of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, the utility already has plans to set up a Fire Victim Trust to compensate victims.

“Thousands lost their homes and businesses,” PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson told NBC News. “We cannot change the devastation or ever forget the loss of life that occurred … but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident.”

The utility is one of the biggest combined electrical and gas companies in the country. It already paid $25.5 billion in damages to victims from other fires from 2015, 2017 and 2018. The settlement allots $13.5 billion to private claims, $11 billion to insurance carriers and $1 billion to government entity claims.

Restructuring and sale

The Chapter 11 filing also allows it time to restructure the company and put it up for sale by June 30. If there is no buyer, the state will likely take over ownership, at least in the short term. The goal is to keep the company in operation so that it can compensate others while continuing to provide services to Californians.

Final resolution unclear at this time

The sentencing date is April 24, but this will likely be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Municipalities, companies and private citizens with questions about how this agreement affects an insurance settlement or related matter, may wish to speak with an attorney here in California who handles these types of issues.