Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company that provides natural gas and electric services to 16 million Californians, announced this week that it would plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire. The blaze, which decimated the town of Paradise, was California's deadliest fire ever.
Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, which also destroyed 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings, Around 90% of families have still not returned to their homes in Paradise. Last year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection determined that the Camp Fire was caused by 100-year-old, under-serviced PG&E electrical lines.
The plea agreement, negotiated by the Butte County district attorney and PG&E, ends all criminal proceedings against the company and marks a turning point in the two-year battle between PG&E and the fire's victims. The plea agreement also states that the company will pay a maximum fine of $13.5 billion, plus $500,000 to the Butte County District Attorney Environmental and Consumer Protection Fund as a reimbursement for investigation costs.
In the aftermath of the fire, PG&E faced tens of billions of dollars in liabilities claims. It filed for bankruptcy in January 2019. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that the state had reached an agreement with PG&E, which includes billions in aid for victims and mandates increased safety precautions.
“Our equipment started the fire. Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire,” Bill Johnson, PG&E president said.
Legal experts note that the scale of the settlement is historic. "It is unprecedented to charge the corporation with manslaughter," Steve Campora, a partner at Dreyer, Babich, Buccola, Wood, Campora, LLP with experience litigating settlements with PG&E, told Mic in an email. In 2010, a gas explosion caused by a PG&E line resulted in the company being charged with six felonies and hit with an eventual $5 million fine plus probation.
"As evidenced by the Camp Fire, those charges did not change PG&E's conduct," Campora told Mic. "PG&E just pays the money and continues to be motivated by profit over safety. In my opinion, it is time to charge some of the officers and directors criminally." Campora also said that he thinks the Butte district attorney should have pursued those charges in order to "send a message" about future conduct.
PG&E was also named as a defendant in the civil suit in the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, which killed 36 people. The utility was found to have failed to adequately inspect the building's electrical lines.
The Camp Fire plea agreement could change how criminal charges against the company are pursued, given that PG&E has been implicated in 1,500 wildfires in California since 2014. Heading into the warmer summer months, the state is at particular risk for destructive wildfires, due to a years-long drought and other compounding effects of climate change.