PG&E to Plead Guilty to Lethal Crimes in 2018 Wildfires

Clay Curtis
March 24, 2020

California's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, will plead guilty to 84 involuntary manslaughter counts in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state's history.

The utility announced, in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, that it will admit to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and a single count of unlawfully starting a fire.

The deal with the Butte County District Attorney's office resolves all state charges stemming from the blaze, which pushed PG&E into Chapter 11 past year. In addition, PG&E has agreed to fund efforts to restore access to water for the next five years for residents impacted by the loss of the Miocene Canal, which was destroyed by the fire.

In a statement, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he hopes the plea agreement will bring "a bit of a sense of justice done" for the fire. "Those are the facts, and with this plea agreement we accept responsibility for our role in the fire", PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson said.

A member of the wildfire victims' committee advising the federal bankruptcy proceeding, Karen Gowins, tells the New York Times that this latest plea deal with Butte County is yet another sign that PG&E is going to be let off too easily in the end. Johnson said PG&E is working to exit bankruptcy, "so that we can get victims paid".

He added: "All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company's part in it".

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PG&E is scheduled to enter its plea and face sentencing at a court hearing scheduled for April 24.

The Nov. 8, 2018, Camp Fire was fanned by strong winds, forcing thousands of people to quickly flee in their cars as flames ripped through the narrow canyon communities.

PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a year ago, in part, to set up a trust fund to compensate victims of fires started by company equipment. Survivors described caravans of vehicles engulfed by flames.

The company also pledged billions of dollars to improve safety and help wildfire victims, under an agreement with Governor Gavin Newsom.

The Camp Fire followed a series of 2017 blazes that tore through Northern California and killed 44 people. Butte County prosecutors did not immediately respond to a Law&Crime request for comment. A timeline for the plan's consideration by the CPUC was still pending on Monday, but PG&E remains committed to gaining the agency's approval and emerging from Chapter 11 by June 30.

PG&E and its utility unit filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing more than $30 billion in potential liabilities from California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 linked to its equipment.

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