The California Supreme Court says PG&E cannot be sued for safety-related power shutoffs

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

The California Supreme Court says PG&E cannot be sued for safety-related power shutoffs

Homepage News, fires, politics in California

Kevin Rector

November 20, 2023

Customers of Pacific Gas & Electric cannot sue the energy giant for losses suffered during power outages meant to protect the public from wildfires, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Such lawsuits would interfere with the California Public Utilities Commission’s “comprehensive regulatory and supervisory authority” over such safety shutoffs and are therefore prohibited under state law, Judge Goodwin Liu wrote in a unanimous decision for the state Supreme Court.

The ruling is a major victory for embattled PG&E, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2020 after collapsing under $30 billion in liabilities due to wildfires caused by its equipment. A lawsuit over safety restrictions, if allowed, would have potentially exposed the company to billions of dollars in additional liabilities.

PG&E is emerging from bankruptcy

The company said in a statement Monday that its “primary responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve” that such closures seek to protect. But the utility also said it is working to improve service during dangerous weather conditions.

“We know that losing power significantly disrupts people’s lives,” the company said.

Improvements in the work include “updating forecasts and fire risk models; improving technology and tools to identify scope and potential impacts; and strengthening community engagement with stakeholders.”

The ruling stems from a separate federal case in which plaintiff Anthony Gantner accused PG&E of harming him and other customers by repeatedly cutting power to reduce the risk of infrastructure sparking wildfires during extreme weather events in the fall of 2019.

Gantner claimed the closures were




because PG&E had failed to properly maintain its power grid for decades. He claimed in court that the company owed him and other customers $2.5 billion

as a result

to cover “loss of habitability of their homes, loss of food items in their refrigerators, expenses for alternative lighting and power sources, … loss of cell phone connectivity, dangerous dark conditions, lack of running water, and loss of productivity and business.”

Gantner’s attorneys said in a written statement Monday that it was “a sad day for Californians” as the court ruled “leaving consumers to foot the bill” for days and weeks of power shutoffs, “regardless of how negligent PG&E is in maintaining its electricity network’. grid and no matter how much damage it causes to its customers,” as long as it follows the commission’s rules for implementing such shutoffs.

They wrote that they “strongly disagree” with the court’s conclusion that such lawsuits would interfere with the commission’s authority over PG&E. They wrote that the decision “dramatically shifts the balance of power” from consumers to utilities, and urged California lawmakers to “step in” and change that.

Has California addressed the failures that led to the deadly Camp Fire five years ago?

Both a federal bankruptcy court and a federal district court had previously dismissed Gantner’s claims as barred under state law. He appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the case raised questions about California state law and therefore asked the California Supreme Court, the ultimate authority in such cases, to weigh in.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not conclude the lawsuit against the electricity company, but…


will announce the 9th Circuit’s decision in this case.

Extreme weather caused by global warming has increased the threat of raging wildfires across the American West for years, with extreme heat and drought turning dense forests into powder kegs. Meanwhile, aging energy infrastructure throughout California poses a significant risk for such fires to occur.

The combination has been a disaster, with utility-fueled wildfires ravaging large swathes of the state in recent years, killing people and destroying small towns in their wake.

The 2018 Camp Fire, which was caused by a faulty transmission line in the Sierra Nevada foothills, became the deadliest wildfire in California history, destroying the town of Paradise and killing 85 people.

PG&E has agreed to pay billions of dollars to fire victims and spend billions more to upgrade infrastructure to reduce the fire threat. The company has also taken on billions in debt to emerge from bankruptcy. And it is not alone in incurring such fire-related costs.

Electric and gas bills for about 16 million people in California are expected to rise by an average of more than $32 a month next year, in part to cover the cost of burying the company’s power lines and thereby reducing the risk of fire.

PG&E bills will increase by more than $32 per month next year

The California Public Utilities Commission, which sided with PG&E in the lawsuit, is enforcing public safety shutdown guidelines and calling on utilities to “proactively turn off power to lines that may be down in certain weather conditions to reduce the chance reduce the risk that their infrastructure could cause problems or contribute to a wildfire.”

The commission also requires utilities to do this


initiate closures


as a last resort, to give customers as much advance warning as possible of such closures and to make plans to limit the damage caused by such closures.

The 9th Circuit will consider the California Supreme Court’s decision in its final ruling in the federal case, which remains pending for now.

Liu noted that the Supreme Court’s decision does not preclude a lawsuit against the energy company based on narrower damages claims caused by specific negligence on the part of the company.


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