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By: Carlos Martinez-Garcia
On July 2, 2018, the Third Appellate District of California awarded Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) its first critical victory in defending itself against fire claims caused by its power lines: Butte Fire Cases, (2018) 24 Cal. App. 5th 1150. In 2015, the “Butte Fire” started after a gray pine came into contact with one of PG&E’s power lines, burning more than 70,868 acres, damaging hundreds of structures, and claiming two lives. The subsequent lawsuits, which were consolidated in a judicial council coordinated proceeding in Sacramento Superior Court, are comprised of 2,050 plaintiffs who sought punitive damages under Civil Code § 3294.
The master complaint alleged that the utility company and two contractors failed to properly maintain the power line and adjacent vegetation, warranting punitive damages. The Third Appellate District disagreed, striking Plaintiffs’ prayer for a punitive damages award.
In California, punitive damages may be recovered under section 3294 “where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.” (Civ. Code § 3294) Malice is defined by section 3294, subdivision (c)(1) as “conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
In seeking summary adjudication, PG&E submitted evidence that it devotes significant resources to vegetation management programs intended to minimize the risk of wildfire, spending more than $190 million per year on vegetation management operations. The operations include routine annual patrols, quality assurance and control programs, and a public safety and reliability program. PG&E also contracted with ACRT, Inc. to conduct inspections and vegetation management, Quantum Spatial, to collect data using LiDAR to identify dead or dying trees, and Trees, Inc. to trim noncompliant trees. No inspections identified the subject tree as a danger.
The Third District was unpersuaded by Plaintiffs’ contention that PG&E’s vegetation management program was “window dressing”, PG&E’s vegetation management methodologies were defective, or that PG&E evinced a cavalier attitude towards public safety evidenced by the infamous San Bruno pipeline explosion and a 1994 “Rough and Ready” fire caused by PG&E.
Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of material fact that showed PG&E acted despicably, or with willful and conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others. PG&E’s nondelegable duty to safely maintain the power lines does not alter the analysis of punitive damages under § 3294. There was nothing despicable in the utility company’s assumption that contractors were training their employees as required, and any criticisms of PG&E’s methodologies do not amount to clear and convincing proof that PG&E acted with malice. At most, plaintiffs’ evidence showed mere carelessness or ignorance.
If you have any questions, or would like more information, please contact Carlos Martinez-Garcia at [email protected].