Northern California Record

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Appeals court vacates denial of PG&E petition for summary adjudication in Butte Fire case


By Kyla Asbury | Jul 17, 2018

General court 08

SACRAMENTO – An appeals court recently vacated a decision denying a motion for summary adjudication in a lawsuit involving the Butte Fire that started in Jackson and swept through Calaveras and Amador counties in September 2015.

Richard Abi-Habib and more than 2,000 other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for the wildfire, which began when a tree fell and came into contact with an overhead power line belonging to PG&E. The wild fire began with the pine and once it started, took approximately three weeks to contain. The fire quickly spread across more than 70,000 acres of land.

PG&E filed for summary adjudication of the plaintiffs' request for punitive damages, but the trial court denied the motion.

Pacific Gas then filed a writ relief from the denial of the order.

California's 3rd District Court of Appeal concluded "there are no triable issues of fact which, if resolved in plaintiffs’ favor, could subject PG&E to punitive damages," in its decision filed July 2. Justice Jonathan K. Renner authored the opinion with Justices Louis Mauro and William J. Murray Jr. concurring.

The appellate court ruled that PG&E met its initial burden regarding the issue of malice and that the company presented evidence showing that it had a program to manage vegetation and that the area had been patrolled routinely.

"As we have suggested, nothing in the record supports an inference that (PG&E) willfully or consciously disregarded the need for contractors to use properly trained employees," Renner wrote. "To the contrary, (PG&E) required that contractors hire qualified employees, train their employees on vegetation management programs and practices, and 'diligently perform all work in a proper and professional manner accordance with the approved principles of modern arboriculture.'"

Renner wrote that no reasonable jury would be able to find "clear and convincing evidence" that PG&E had acted in malice.

Third Appellate District Court of Appeal of the state of California Case number: C085308

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