Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could be charged with murder or involuntary manslaughter if authorities determine that recent deadly California wildfires ignited as a result of the “reckless” operation or maintenance of power lines, state prosecutors said.
In a court filing Friday, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office detailed potential criminal charges the utility could face if found responsible for wildfires in the state that have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes; possible charges include failing to keep power lines clear of trees or vegetation, recklessly starting a forest fire and murder.
A spokesperson for the utility released a statement Sunday in response to the filing but declined to comment further.
“PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild,” the statement said. “Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire.”
The attorney general’s filing came at the request of a federal judge overseeing the utility’s probation in a criminal case stemming from the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline blast in 2010, which killed eight people. PG&E was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $3-million fine in that case.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked Becerra’s office to identify each potential criminal offense the utility could face in connection with the blazes.
He also asked the utility, federal prosecutors and an independent monitor reviewing the company’s safety performance as part of the San Bruno case to weigh in on PG&E’s actions since the sentencing, setting a Monday deadline. As of Sunday night, only Becerra’s office had filed a response.
Laurie Levenson, professor at Loyola Law School, said the severity of charges the utility faces depends on whether it was “on notice of the risk that their equipment may start the fires and lead to deaths.”
“Callous disregard of that risk could be murder,” she said. “The more likely charge would probably be involuntary manslaughter, which requires criminal negligence…. The real key here is how much risk they realized they were taking and why they took it.”
Though companies can’t be jailed if held criminally liable, they can be fined and debarred from contracts. When that happens, it is like a corporate death penalty, Levenson said.
State prosecutors said the utility’s criminal liability would depend on its degree of recklessness.
“ ‘Recklessness’ could include the mental state of multiple offenses. These mental states resemble a sliding scale. As the mental state becomes more culpable, the applicable offense becomes more serious,” the filing said.
It continued: “At criminal negligence, PG&E could have committed involuntary manslaughter, starting a fire without permission, and failing to keep its lines and poles clear of vegetation. At recklessness … PG&E could have committed the felony of unlawfully starting a fire. And at malice, PG&E could have committed murder.”
Butte County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramsey told the Sacramento Bee that he hasn’t decided whether to file criminal charges against PG&E over the Camp fire, even if the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determines the company is at fault.
“It’s a little premature,” he said.
In the filing, state prosecutors don’t offer a position on PG&E’s criminal liability or whether the utility caused the fires. But PG&E is facing intense criticism and at least 20 lawsuits that allege the utility allowed its equipment to spark the deadliest wildfire on record in California history.
One lawsuit points to a small metal hook on an electrical transmission tower as the cause in the Camp fire, which killed 86 people and displaced up to 50,000 in Butte County. When it failed, the suit alleges, an uninsulated wire touched the tower, caused sparks and ignited the blaze.
Another blasts a corporate culture that allegedly places “reputation above public safety” along with advertising that “promotes a false and misleading picture” of Northern California’s electricity supply.
Other suits blame the general decay of the region’s electrical infrastructure and the failure to trim trees and brush that grew too close to poles and power lines.