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Published On: Mon, Jan 7th, 2019

Pacific Gas and Electric to dodge murder charges, but bankruptcy and asset sales likely

Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, is under attack over its equipment’s role in starting multiple deadly wildfires.

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In fact, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, filed documents with Northern California’s federal district court warning that PG&E may face severe criminal charges if its operations or equipment are found to have sparked fatal wildfires. Becerra said PG&E could face murder or manslaughter charges related to the state’s deadly wildfires.

Facing escalating insurance costs related to the blazes, possible outcomes for the company include breaking up into multiple parts, selling off its gas assets, replacing management and a second bankruptcy filing in as many decades.

“Our focus continues to be on assessing infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers recover and rebuild,” spokesperson Paul Doherty said in an email.

Asked about the potential for manslaughter or murder charges, Doherty said the utility is concentrating on assessing its infrastructure and its “most important responsibility is the safety of the customers and communities we serve.”

California utility regulators have made clear they don’t want to see PG&E file for bankruptcy, but the situation is also complicated by a range of political factors.

The utility is unpopular with voters and lawmakers don’t want any actions to be viewed as a bailout.

Charging corporations with murder “is very rare,” Kelly Strader, a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told Utility Dive, “but it happens every now and then.”

Michael Wara, a lawyer and research fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said he thinks the possibility of a murder charge for PG&E is “pretty unlikely.”

“You’d have to prove a kind of intent, reckless disregard, on the part of key executives,” he said. “It’s possible, I suppose, but you’d have to prove intent in a way that is difficult.”

The Camp Fire torched roughly 150,000 acres north of Sacramento in November. It killed at least 86 people and is California’s deadliest wildfire on record, according to California’s state fire agency. The fire destroyed nearly 19,000 structures. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but early reports suggest the disaster began with a broken PG&E transmission line.

About the Author

- Catherine "Kaye" Wonderhouse, a proud descendant of the Wunderhaus family is the Colorado Correspondent who will add more coverage, interviews and reports from this midwest area.

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