Families of Northern California Fire Victims Suing PG&E (Can Firefighters Be Held Liable?)

The potential financial costs of the wildfires that ravaged much of Northern California in October are staggering, taking a tremendous toll on the regional crop industries. Worse still are the more tragic costs of lives and homes. Now that the fires have been contained, the time has come for the necessary work of investigating their origins – and with cause comes accountability.

Considering the magnitude of these fires, how quickly they spread, and the heat they generated, there are a number of factors contributing to the intensity of the natural disaster. Dry conditions, high winds, warming climates, and other considerations all played a role. All fire agencies in the western US have confirmed that their burning seasons are longer and potentially more dangerous as a result of climate change. This is the new nature of things, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to respond and adjust accordingly.

Class Action Lawsuit is Under Way Following Northern California Fires

With that being said, in the aftermath of these fires a potential class action suit is brewing. Currently in its infancy, this lawsuit sees several families and homeowners seeking compensation from utility giant PG&E for negligence that they believe caused or contributed to these fires.

At the time of this writing, 15 families and individuals have joined hands in the battle. They are suing the utility company, which is based in San Francisco, for what they say was “gross negligence.” The accusations revolve around PG&E’s allegedly poor performance in maintaining equipment and controlling the proximity of trees and other vegetation to power lines.

This isn’t the first time PG&E has been sued for fire related tragedies. In 2016, a structural fire occurred in Oakland which claimed the lives of 36 people, and PG &E is being held responsible.

The fallout from the Northern California wildfire disaster is still growing, and it’s likely that more families and businesses will join forces against the power company. The case will likely pend for some time.

However, it’s still worth speculating on what the far-reaching consequences will be for major corporations and emergency response agencies when it comes to their liability as fires inevitably spring up in the future. In the political sphere, the veracity and impact of climate change is still hotly debated, which complicates the issues from a legal and compensatory perspective.

How Does This Affect Emergency Responders and Firefighters?

Fortunately, first responders are protected under California law written in 1963. Under California Government Code Section 850.4, “neither a public entity, nor a public employee acting in the scope of his employment, is liable for any injury resulting from the condition of fire protection or firefighting equipment or facilities or…for any injury caused in fighting fires.”

While fire agencies are  protected under California law, there have been instances in other states across the country where firefighters and their respective agencies have been held liable. Historically, these incidents have been in smaller communities with volunteer-based personnel, and more often than not, the issue in question has been a matter of conduct rather than performance or competency. Still, the unprecedented nature of these new lawsuits may alter the entire dynamic between emergency services and the communities they seek to serve.

The reality of climate change and the unfavorable conditions it fosters for intense blazes could impact evaluation for competency and proficiency. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility or reason that fire companies could come under intense scrutiny as powerhouses such as PG&E inoculate themselves from liability in the future and communities search for someone new to blame and, ultimately, sue.

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