Below are some recent articles that we believe are important and worth reading.
On November 15, 2018, our team filed the first lawsuit against SCE for damages arising from the Woolsey Fire. Our team, friends, and family have felt the effects of SCE’s negligence firsthand with the Thomas Fire, Montecito Mudslides, and now the Woolsey Fire. Our goal in this litigation is twofold: 1) to make our clients whole, and 2) force SCE to effectuate procedural changes that prevent future wildfires from occurring.
As attorneys, we feel obligated to educate our clients about their legal rights, recoverable damages, and important news and events, as the litigation proceeds. We are constantly updating our clients via newsletters, as well our Facebook page. You can follow us at:
July 2020 Woolsey Fire Lawsuit Litigation Update
As previously reported, the Los Angeles County Superior Court closed on March 23, 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday, July 16th, the Court held its first remote video hearing in this case since that closure. Several important motions were argued and ruled upon which greatly benefit you and your case as explained below.
A. Motion To Enforce Subpoena on Cal Fire and VCFD to Release Investigation Report
Last Fall, we served subpoenas on Cal Fire and Ventura County Fire Department (“VCFD”), the two agencies which investigated the cause and origin of the Woolsey Fire, to obtain the official investigation report. In all wildfire cases, the investigation report is the basis for us to prove a defendant’s civil liability for causing the fire. Last year, we learned that the California Attorney General’s Office was conducting a criminal investigation of Edison for causing the Woolsey Fire. Because that criminal investigation was ongoing, the Attorney General’s Office (“AG”) refused to allow the release of the official investigation report to the litigants in the Woolsey Fire civil lawsuit. As a result, we served a subpoena on Cal Fire and VCFD which requested the Court to order the release of the report to us. The AG opposed our request and filed a motion to quash our subpoenas. On September 24, 2019, the Court granted the AG’s motion, citing the sensitive nature of the ongoing criminal investigation. In making his ruling, the judge stated that he believed that the AG’s investigation would be completed by April 1, 2019, and that the report would be released soon thereafter. The judge also issued an order staying all depositions of Edison until the investigation report was released.
April 1st came and went without the release of the investigation report by the AG. Thus, we served new subpoenas on Cal Fire and VCFD, and the AG once again filed their opposition claiming that the COVID pandemic had delayed the completion of its investigation and that the report should remain confidential until October of 2020. We then filed a motion to enforce our subpoenas. The hearing on our motion was held yesterday. The AG’s Office had two Deputy Attorney General’s meet in camera (on a private phone call between the judge, the AG and a court reporter – which is specifically allowed by case law) during the hearing in an attempt to convince the judge why the report should remain confidential. After hearing from the AG, the judge ruled in our favor and granted our motion to release significant portions of the investigation report. The judge ruled that the AG must provide him with an unredacted version of the report and all of its supporting attachments (e.g. photos, videos, charts, measurements, collected by the investigators) by July 23rd. The judge will then review the report and decide if there is any portion of it, which if released to us, could jeopardize the criminal investigation. However, the judge did indicate he intends to release the majority of the report and its supporting evidence to us by August 4th. With the release of the report, we can begin to depose Edison’s employees and move this case forward.
During yesterday’s hearing, after the judge met in camera with the AG, the judge took the bench and made a stunning disclosure. He told us on the record that the AG has convened a grand jury in Ventura County concerning Edison’s role in causing the Woolsey Fire. This was the reason the AG didn’t want the report to be released. The AG claims that the grand jury will reach a charging decision by August or September of this year. Because a grand jury only issues indictments for felony charges, this means that the AG is seeking a felony indictment against Edison for causing the Woolsey Fire. If an indictment is issued by the grand jury, it will be the first time the State of California has indicted a utility company for starting a wildfire.1 The judge chastised the AG for taking too long to convene the grand jury and stated that any further delay in releasing the report to the litigants would unfairly prejudice the thousands of victims of the Woolsey Fire. Needless to say, if Edison is indicted by the grand jury, it will greatly help our civil case and put tremendous pressure on Edison to settle these cases.
We are proud that our legal team served the subpoenas, filed the motion to enforce them, and argued the motion at yesterday’s hearing. We are leading the charge to hold Edison accountable for the tremendous destruction and loss of life it caused in the Woolsey Fire. You can learn more about our efforts here: https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/communities/conejo-valley/2020/07/17/california-wildfires-woolsey-fire-criminal-investigation-ongoing/5356653002/
B. Bellwether Woolsey Liability Trial Plaintiff Selection
Also during yesterday’s hearing, the judge selected 29 plaintiffs to participate in three bellwether trials. A bellwether trial is used in mass tort cases to submit a subset of representative cases to a jury to determine liability and damages. The goal of the bellwether trial is to use the result to hopefully settle the rest of the cases. We are pleased to report that of the 29 bellwether plaintiffs selected by the judge, 16 (55%) of them are our clients. This high percentage reflects the fact that we represent 1,066 plaintiffs in the Woolsey Fire case. One of the benefits of hiring our legal team is the power of numbers. As you can see, our clients dominated the bellwether selection. Also, as we have seen in the Thomas Fire mediations so far, Edison wants to settle with the firms who have the highest number of bellwether plaintiffs in order to avoid a bellwether trial.
Because of the COVID pandemic and the resulting backlog of jury trials, the Court has not yet set a date for the first bellwether trial. We expect the earliest that a bellwether trial will be held sometime next year.
C. SCE’s Mediation and Settlement Efforts
Recently, Edison began settling cases in both the Thomas and Woolsey Fire cases. Our legal team was the first to settle cases in the Thomas Fire case in April. To date, Edison has settled the claims of approximately 27 households represented by six different plaintiffs’ law firms. Additionally, Edison has settled with approximately 19 households in the Woolsey Fire case. Almost all of the Woolsey settlements have involved mobile homes in the Seminole Springs mobile home park on Mullholland Highway. Given the fact that there are claims by approximately 3,000 households in both fire cases, the percentage of cases settled by Edison so far is extremely low. Reasons for this low percentage include: (a) Edison will only mediate cases where the plaintiffs have closed their insurance claim and are seeking no further money from their homeowner’s insurance company; (b) Edison requires 30-45 days for its team of experts to work up each plaintiff’s claim before submitting it to mediation; and (c) Edison is only willing to mediate 10 cases at a time. We have complained on the record to the Court about Edison’s slow settlement process, which if not drastically improved, will drag out settlement of all cases for years to come.
JANUARY AND FEBRUARY 2020 LITIGATION UPDATE
SCE’S MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF’S INVERSE CONDEMNATION CLAIM
At the February 13, 2020, Status Conference, the Court will decide whether inverse condemnation applies to this case—as courts have affirmed in the past. SCE has filed a motion with the court to have this claim dismissed; our team filed an opposition to SCE’s request. At the last status conference, Judge Highberger invited additional briefing on the issue of whether inverse condemnation applies to your case, in light of SDG&E’s failed attempt to pass on its unreimbursed costs from the 2007 San Diego wildfires to its ratepayers. The theory of inverse condemnation is essentially strict liability applied to utilities, wherein we would need only to prove the utility’s equipment started the fire (basically, what SCE has admitted to). Proof of negligence would not be required. SCE’s arguments against inverse condemnation are basically the same ones it made in the 2017 Thomas Fire, and similar to those made by PG&E in the 2017 North Bay Fire – which were rejected in both cases.
Thomas Fire April 2020 Bellwether Trial Continued to June 2020
Last month, at the January Status Conference, Judge Buckley moved the Thomas Bellwether trial date from April 20, 2020 to June 15, 2020. This enabled parties to have more time to complete additional depositions and obtain the evidence they need for the trial. Judge Buckley stated emphatically, on the record, that this is the last time the date will be moved, and the June 2020 trial date is final.
As we have stated prior, bellwether plaintiffs are intended to be representative of the different types of claims in this case. The court selected two plaintiffs in each of the following categories: (1) homeowner; (2) tenant; (3) smoke & soot damage; and (4) agriculture damage. Eight of the sixteen selected bellwether plaintiffs are fellow clients of your attorneys. All other firms had no more than two clients selected as bellwethers. Our clients represent half of bellwether plaintiffs, and that ensures we will be major participants at the bellwether trial.
As of this update, your attorneys are actively preparing our bellwether clients for depositions, working with experts regarding their damage claims, and getting their cases ready for trial. Although we expect SCE to settle before, we will be 100% prepared for trial, if should come to that. SCE will understand we are serious about getting maximum value for all our clients – not just the bellwether cases.
In your case, the July 2020 Woolsey Bellwether Trial date is still on calendar. While Judge Highberger has stated that the July 2020 trial date will need be moved to not conflict with the Thomas Fire bellwether trial, he has not done so. Our next hearing is on February 13, 2020, and we expect the judge to move the first Woolsey bellwether trial to September of 2020. The prospect of a June 2020 Thomas Fire, and September 2020 Woolsey trial date will put increased pressure on SCE to settle both the Thomas and Woolsey Fire cases.
SCE Enters Exploratory Settlement Discussions
Last month, SCE announced that at a Status Conference that it has engaged in preliminary settlement discussions with the individual plaintiffs and insurance companies. While we are encouraged that SCE is open to discussing settlement, there is no guarantee that a settlement is imminent. It is normal course in large cases like this for the parties to discuss settlement prior to trial.
Historically, in wildfire cases, the governmental entities and insurance companies settle prior to homeowners. The reason for this being, is that these entities have more straightforward claims. These groups usually seek hard economic damages that are easily quantifiable. For example, the governmental entities seek fire suppression costs, lost tax revenue, damages to trees, and landscaping, etc. The insurance companies seek what they paid out to their insureds, under their homeowner’s policies. (The insurance companies usually resolve these claims for around fifty cents on the dollar.) As part of these settlements, the utilities usually get an offset against the plaintiff’s claim, for the amount that their insurance company paid them. In the case of Individual Plaintiffs (you), these claims take longer to resolve, as they include both economic and noneconomic damages (annoyance, discomfort, inconvenience, emotional distress, etc.) Utilities require more documentation for these claims, as they often include items that are not covered by insurance, such as: landscaping, erosion, cherished possessions (family photographs, etc.), and emotional distress – and sometimes the plaintiff has no insurance at all. Every individual case is different, and each plaintiff has their own story of how they were personally affected by the fire. As such, these cases take longer to work up and analyze.
We believe discussions will be ongoing for months – perhaps into the beginning of the June Bellwether Trial. As you may recall, SCE announced, in November 2019, that it had resolved its claims with the governmental entities for $360 million. If, in the near future, SCE announces a resolution with the insurance companies, then we will know SCE is serious about settling the individual cases too.
SCE SETTLES WITH THE GOV. ENTITIES FOR $360 MILLION (January, 2020)
SCE issued a press release stating that it had reached a settlement with 23 governmental entities to resolve their claims relating to the 2017 Thomas fire, 2018 Montecito debris flow, and 2018 Woolsey fire. This settlement does not include any individual homeowners or insurance companies. The settlement includes the following public entities:
Thomas Fire and Montecito
City of Ventura, Ventura County, the Ventura County Fire Protection District, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, Santa Barbara County, the Santa Barbara County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, the Santa Barbara County Fire Protection District, the city of Santa Barbara, the Montecito Water District, the Montecito Fire Protection District and the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District.
Ventura County, the Ventura County Fire Protection District, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, Los Angeles County, the L.A. County Flood Control District, the Consolidated Fire Protection District of L.A., the city of Malibu, the city of Agoura Hills, the city of Westlake Village, the city of Calabasas, the city of Hidden Hills, the city of Thousand Oaks, the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, the Conejo Recreation and Park District, and the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District.
You can read more about the settlement here:
What does the public entity settlement mean for my case?
As part of this litigation, there are various individuals, groups, and entities seeking recovery for damages they incurred as a result of these fires and the catastrophic debris flow. These groups include the Individual Plaintiffs (which includes your case), insurance companies, and governmental entities. Each group has their own leadership committee and claims.
Historically, in wildfire cases, the governmental entities and insurance companies settle prior to the homeowners. The reason this happens is that these groups have more straightforward claims. These groups usually seek hard economic damages that are easily quantifiable. For example, the governmental entities seek fire suppression costs, lost tax revenue, damages to trees, and landscaping, etc. The insurance companies seek the amount that they paid out to their insureds under their homeowner’s policies. The insurance companies usually resolve these claims for around fifty cents on the dollar. As part of these settlements, the utilities usually get an offset against the plaintiff’s claim for the amount that their insurance company paid them. In the case of Individual Plaintiffs (who you are), these claims take longer to resolve, because they include both economic and noneconomic damages (annoyance, discomfort, inconvenience, and emotional distress, etc.). The utilities want more documentation for these claims, as they often include items that are not covered by insurance, such as landscaping, erosion, cherished possessions (family photographs, wedding pictures, etc.), emotional distress, or sometimes the plaintiff has no insurance at all. Also, every case is different, and each plaintiff has their own story of how were affected by the fire. As such, the cases take longer to work up and analyze.
SCE’s decision to settle with the Public Entities for both fire cases now is a good sign that SCE is serious about resolving these cases without a trial. We expect to engage SCE regarding settlement of the Individual Plaintiffs’ claims and will keep you updated as developments occur. In the meantime, we continue to aggressively work up your case for trial in the event no settlement occurs.
THOMAS FIRE BELLWETHER TRIAL PLAINTIFFS CHOSEN (November 2019)
Judge Buckley picked 8 plaintiffs, and an additional 8 back-up plaintiffs, in the Thomas Fire case after a lengthy selection process. The bellwether plaintiffs are supposed to be representative of different types of claims in a fire case. Two plaintiffs were selected in each of the following four categories: (1) homeowner; (2) tenant; (3) smoke & soot damage; and (4) agriculture damage. Our clients were selected for 8 of the 16 bellwether plaintiffs. All other law firms who had a client selected as a bellwether plaintiff had no more than 2 clients included in the Court’s selection. This means that our clients represent the majority of bellwether plaintiffs and that we will be major participants in the bellwether trial in April of 2020.
Rest assured, our team is preparing these cases for trial, and will be ready, come April 2020. Being ready for trial, will allow us to get maximum settlement value for your case.
October Litigation Supplemental Update (October 30, 2019)
SCE’S CEO DISCLOSES FINDINGS OF DRAFT CAL FIRE REPORT
As we mentioned during last month’s update, our team subpoenaed the Cal Fire report from Cal Fire directly. In response to our subpoena, the California Attorney General’s office filed a motion asking that the Court block our subpoena. In particular, they argued the release of the report would disrupt their criminal investigation into SCE’s conduct with the regard to the cause of the Woolsey Fire (https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/communities/simi-valley/2019/08/30/criminal-investigation-focusing-cause-origin-woolsey-fire/2164551001/. The judge granted the Attorney General Office’s request, but offered a compromise where a redacted draft copy of the report would be produced to all counsel in the case subject to a protective order. The protective order precludes the attorneys and parties in the case from disclosing the contents of the report.
During SCE’s third quarter earnings conference call yesterday, its CEO made the below statement about the draft report:
“I would like to give an update on the Woolsey Fire. Parties to the Woolsey litigation, including SCE, received a non-final redacted draft of an investigation report from the Ventura County Fire Department stating that electrical equipment owned and operated by SCE was the cause of the Woolsey Fire. The report is subject to the court’s protective order and, other than what we are disclosing to you today, we are not authorized to release the report, or its contents, to the public at this time. Absent additional evidence, SCE believes it is likely that its equipment was associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire. Final determination of legal causation and liability would only be made during lengthy and complex litigation. You will recall that in the fourth quarter of 2018, we accrued an after-tax charge to earnings of $1.8 billion in connection with the 2017 and 2018 Wildfire and Mudslide Events. This corresponds to the lower end of the reasonably estimated range of expected potential losses. We have determined that no change to the reserve is needed at this time, although it is subject to change as additional information becomes available.”
It appears that by making this disclosure without prior court approval, SCE has violated the protective order and Judge Highberger may address this issue in future court proceedings. Nonetheless, the disclosure is a positive for our caseSCE is admitting that its equipment was associated with the ignition of the fire. You can read more about the statement here: https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/communities/simi-valley/2019/10/29/edison-says-its-equipment-likely-associated-start-woolsey-fire/2502601001/?fbclid=IwAR07AMwO6SQ0SGBj8TebfjZ7dDi8ficUZSY26k6acsmizZAdIuMICvbzLro
SCE’S MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF’S INVERSE CONDEMNATION CLAIM
Next month, the Court will decide the issue of whether Inverse Condemnation applies to this case, as other courts have ruled that Inverse Condemnation does apply to private utilities. SCE filed a motion with the court to have this claim dismissed. Our team has filed an opposition to SCE’s request. Inverse Condemnation has been applied to wildfires caused by utilities for nearly 20 years. Inverse condemnation is basically strict liability for utilities, where we need only to prove the utility’s equipment started the fire (basically, what SCE has admitted to above). Proof of negligence is not required. SCE’s arguments are basically the same ones made by PG&E in the 2017 North Bay Fire, and the ones it made in the 2017 Thomas Fire, which were rejected in both cases.
THOMAS FIRE APRIL 2020 BELLWETHER TRIAL
As you know, our team filed one of the first Thomas Fire cases and the first Montecito Debris Flow case. We have been active in litigating these cases. Several of our clients are before the Court in the final bellwether selection stage. The selection of the trial plaintiffs is set for November 13th in that case. And the first bellwether trial is set to start in April 2020. We hope that the April trial date in the Thomas Fire case, will push SCE to settle the Thomas, Montecito, and Woolsey cases. SCE will want to avoid a trial ruling that is unfavorable to them, which will affect their position in the Montecito and Woolsey cases. Also, being on the trial team allows us to work up trial strategies and themes that we can use in the Woolsey Fire bellwether trials, should SCE choose to not resolve these cases.
OCTOBER NEWS ARTICLES
Below are some recent articles that we believe are important and worth reading. Also, we are constantly updating our Facebook with relevant news articles.
- Woolsey Fire After Action Report Released. LA County has released its report on what went wrong with the Woolsey Fire firefighting and evacuation efforts. You can view the report here:
- Supreme Court Rejects SDG&E’s Attempt to Pass on Costs of 2007 San Diego Wildfires to ratepayers. The US Supreme Court declined the utility’s request that it be allowed to pass on $379 million in unreimbursed costs related to the 2007 wildfires.
SCE Makes Disclosure it’s Equipment May Have Caused Woolsey Fire
Today, SCE made the following disclsoure during an investor call:
“While SCE did not find evidence of downed electrical wires on the ground in the suspected area of origin, it observed a pole support wire in proximity to an electrical wire that was energized prior to the outage. Whether the November 8, 2018, outage was related to contact being made between the support wire and the electrical wire has not been determined. SCE believes that its equipment could be found to have been associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire.”
You can read more about SCE’s disclosure here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-29/edison-says-equipment-was-found-to-have-caused-woolsey-fire
As we have stated since day one, SCE is to blame for starting the Woolsey Fire. You can learn more about our investigation on our Woolsey Fire Cause page.
October Lawsuit Update (October 10, 2019)
There was another status conference held this month. Our attorneys attended. SCE has requested that the depositions of the first responders and all depositions be put on hold until the Cal Fire Report is released in April 2020. Last month, the judge in the case granted the California Attorney General’s request to quash our attempt to obtain the Cal Fire Report. The AG argued that they need additional time to complete their investigation, and therefore we should not be able to obtain the report. In a compromise, the Judge allowed the attorneys on this case to view a redacted draft of the report, after signing a confidentiality agreement, which precludes them from talking about the contents. In addition, the judge stated that discovery could continue. We, of course, are opposing SCE’s attempt to stall the case. The issue will be heard at the November status conference.
In addition, SCE’s motion to strike our client’s inverse condemnation claims will also be heard in November. Inverse condemnation is a strict liability claim, which hold governmental entities (SCE is considered qausi-governmental) liable for the harm they cause during their operation, regardless of fault. SCE has made the same arguments it has in this case and has lost. Our team is actively working with the leadership team to oppose this attempt.
With regard to non-liability matters, our team continues to work with our nearly 750 clients to get their damage questionnaires completed. We have four experienced firms, with numerous attorneys and paralegals, working on this matter, so we more than equipped to assist our clients with the preparations of these documents. We take pride in being accessible to our clients, and responsive to their needs.
In the Thomas Fire cases, our team is close to finalizing Bellwether Plaintiffs for the upcoming trial with SCE. The trial is scheduled for April 2020. Several of our clients have made the final phase of selection. Our team hopes that the added pressure of a trial will force SCE into a settlement posture. Should SCE choose to try those cases, are team of experienced trial lawyers will be more than prepared to represent our clients, as well as the other Bellwether Plaintiffs.
In other news, non-litigation news, after a log court battle, the US Supreme court rejected SDG&E’s attempt to make it’s ratepayers pay for non-reimbursed costs from it 2007 San Diego Wildfire settlements. You can read about the decision here: https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-10-07/supreme-court-rejects-sdge-appeal-on-wildfire-costs.
September Lawsuit Update (September 29, 2019)
As one of the co-lead counsel for the Individual Plaintiffs, several months ago Alex Robertson served a subpoena upon Cal Fire and Ventura County Fire Protection District to obtain a complete copy of the Woolsey Fire investigation report. In response, the California Attorney General’s Office filed a Motion to Quash our subpoenas on the grounds that there is an active and ongoing criminal investigation of SCE regarding this wildfire. Yesterday there was a hearing on the Attorney General’s motion. During this hearing, the judge met with two Deputy Attorney Generals and the lead fire investigator from Ventura County Fire Department behind closed doors in an in camera hearing. None of the lawyers in the civil case were allowed to participate, which is normal under these circumstances. Prior to meeting with the Deputy Attorney Generals, the judge expressed his skepticism over their claim that the investigation report needs to remain confidential in order to protect their criminal investigation. However, after the closed door meeting, the judge announced that the Attorney General’s Office made a strong showing to him for the need to keep the investigation report confidential until April 2020. The judge then granted the motion to quash our subpoenas, with the following exceptions:
- The Court ordered that a redacted version of the investigation report be provided to all attorneys in the case for their “eyes only” and subject to the protective order (meaning we cannot share the report or its contents with anyone);
- The Court ordered that the visual inspection of physical evidence removed from the area of origin by Cal Fire can proceed, but all attorney and our experts must remain three (3) feet back from and not touch or photograph the evidence;
- Discovery based upon information contained in the investigation report, which is not redacted, may proceed.
Because the judge said the final investigation report will not be issued until April of 2020, he vacated the April 2020 date for the first bellwether trial. No new trial date has been set.
There are a number of take-aways from the Court’s rulings yesterday. First, it appears fairly clear that the Attorney General is taking its criminal investigation of SCE very seriously. For example, in the Thomas Fire case, the Attorney General agreed to release the fire investigation report and allowed us to depose all of the fire investigators in the civil case, even though a criminal investigation is still ongoing of SCE in that case. The fact that the Attorney General’s Office is handling the Woolsey Fire criminal investigation so differently may indicate that it expects criminal charges will be filed against SCE for causing the Woolsey Fire. The most likely way that criminal charges could be brought against SCE would be by a Grand Jury issuing an indictment. These are only done in felony cases. We have no information about what possible felonies the Attorney General is investigating against SCE. All proceedings of a Grand Jury are secret and remain confidential. There is precedent for a utility company to be convicted of a felony. A couple of years ago, PG&E was found guilty of violating federal pipeline safety regulations concerning the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which killed 8 people and destroyed a residential neighborhood. PG&E was sentenced to pay a $3 Million dollar fine, barred from passing on the fine to its ratepayers, its executives ordered to perform 2,000 hours of community service, and put on a five year probation.
We intend to proceed with taking depositions of the first-responders to the fire, concerning the location of the fire’s origin, as well as conducting discovery concerning the design, construction, maintenance and inspection of SCE’s overhead electrical equipment located in the area of origin identified in the redacted report.
Now that the judge has vacated the April 2020 first bellwether trial date, we have requested an extension of the deadlines for the non-bellwether clients to respond to the Damages Questionnaires and Request For Production of documents, which currently are due on October 31st. For our potential Bellwether clients, we continue to prepare their responses, and get their cases ready for the selection process. An article published today in the Ventura County Star newspaper about yesterday’s hearing can be viewed at: https://www.vcstar.com/story/news/local/communities/simi-valley/2019/09…
August Woolsey Updates (August 10, 2019)
Our legal team is working hard with the leadership team to get the Thomas and Woolsey Fire cases ready for trial. Team members are reviewing thousands of pages of documents and taking depositions of SCE’s key safety employees, Cal Fire investigators, and first-responders. The first trials for the bellwether plaintiffs are set to start in January (for the Thomas) and February for (Woolsey). You can learn more about the trials here:
In addition, our team submitted plaintiff fact sheets on behalf of over 600 plaintiffs to the court, as ordered by the judge at a prior status conference. Team members are also working with our clients that were randomly selected to be potential trial plaintiffs to complete the damage questionnaires the the judge required completed. Our goal is to move these cases along as quickly as possible, so that our clients can be made whole as soon as possible.
July Woolsey Fire Litigation Update (July 24, 2019)
Our lawyers were in court again, for the July Status conference. As we mentioned prior, Alex Robertson was picked as co-lead counsel for the litigation, and three of our attorneys serve on the leadership team. We currently represent nearly 1/3 of all the plaintiffs in the litigation. As we have stated prior, these cases our personal to our legal team.
February 2020 Bellwether Trial
As we previously reported, the Court has set a trial date of February 24, 2020 for the first bellwether trial. A bellwether trial is used to try a representative group of cases to verdict in order to inform the parties on (1) whether a jury will hold SCE liable for causing the Thomas fire, and (2) what amount of damages a jury will award a typical plaintiff for such things as real property damages, emotional distress damages and the like. We anticipate that the results of the bellwether trial will be used by SCE and the plaintiffs to hopefully negotiate settlements of the remaining cases.
The Court has determined that there will be four (4) plaintiffs chosen from each of the following four categories of damages to be included in this first bellwether trial:
a) Homeowner (burn-downs)
b) Tenant (burn-downs)
c) Agricultural losses
d) Smoke & soot claims
In order to ensure that the bellwether plaintiffs are randomly selected, the Court has ordered that the following process be followed. First, a list of 99 plaintiffs has been randomly selected from the master list of all plaintiffs whose cases have been coordinated. From this pool of 99, all plaintiffs who do not claim homeowner property loss or agricultural losses will be removed. The Court has ruled that the first bellwether trial will include only homeowner and agricultural losses.
Those selected in that initial pool must then complete damages questionnaires describing their damage claims by September 13th. By September 27th, those bellwether pool plaintiffs must also produce documents supporting their damage claim. On October 14th, each side will propose 6 bellwether plaintiffs from the homeowner category and 6 plaintiffs from theagricultural category (total of 24 plaintiffs). On October 23rd, each side is to strike 3 of the other side’s bellwether plaintiff selections from each category, leaving a total of 12 potential bellwether plaintiffs (6 from each category). On October 25th, each side will submit its remaining 6 bellwether plaintiff selections to the Court. On November 1st, the Court will select one primary and two alternate bellwether plaintiffs who claim homeowner property losses, and one primary and two alternate bellwether plaintiffs who claim agricultural losses. This process is designed to prevent each side from “cherry-picking” their most favorable cases to be included in the bellwether trial. Once the random selections have been made, we will advise you if your case has been chosen.
We have served the initial round of written discovery upon SCE. Additionally, we served a subpoena on Boeing asking for any videotape or photographs taken at the Rocketdyne facility documenting the start of the fire. We also have negotiated with the California Attorney General’s Office (which represents CAL FIRE) to conduct a visual inspection of the electrical equipment the investigators seized during their investigation for July 26th.
The lead investigative agency for the Woolsey Fire is Ventura County Fire Department, as the fire started in Ventura County. CAL FIRE is a co-lead investigative agency. We have been told by counsel for Ventura County that the investigation report will be released by the end of this month. This report will conclude the cause and origin of the fire. We expect the conclusion to point to SCE’s electrical equipment as the cause of the fire.
Several organizations have banded together to offer free group therapy to Woolsey Fire Survivors. You can learn more by clicking:
Woolsey Fire Support Group Meetings
June Litigation Update (June 29, 2019)
On June 26, 2019, we attended another of the many Case Management Conferences (“CMC”) held in your case to date. The CMC was conducted by Judge William Highberger, the judge presiding over all Woolsey Fire cases. Attending the CMC, in addition to your attorneys, were many other attorneys representing other plaintiffs who suffered damage to their homes or businesses, as well as attorneys for those governmental entitles suing Edison for their respective damages. During the CMC Judge Highberger made several significant rulings, as discussed below.
The Initial Trial is Scheduled
Over the objections of Edison, Judge Highberger set the first trial to be held in the Woolsey Fire matter for February 10, 2020. The trial will allow a sample cross-section of plaintiffs to try their cases against Edison. We refer to this type of trial as a “bellwether trial” meaning that the outcome of the trial will present Edison and us with a non-binding indicator or predictor of the respective monetary value of the many different types of claims in the cases. These claims would necessarily include, emotional distress, property damage, damage to crops and agriculture, damage to landscaping and specimen trees, etc.
Judge Highberger has indicated that he anticipates approximately eight plaintiffs to try their cases in February with two plaintiffs from each of the following types of cases: damage or loss of an owned single-family home, damage to agriculture, loss or damage of a rented home and smoke and soot damage to a residence. Just how the first plaintiffs will be selected remains to be worked out and it may be that the selection process will be random in some respects. We are currently in discussions with the other attorneys in the case to reach a consensus on the selection process but Judge Highberger will make the final decision on the matter.
We anticipate that the Judge will set trials every 45 to 90 days for the balance of the cases but this too remains to be worked out with the Judge yet again making the final decision. Judge Highberger is insisting, over Edison’s objections, that the trials take place sooner rather than later, and we are in full agreement with the judge on this point.
Judge Highberger Appoints Alex Robertson as Lead Counsel for Plaintiffs and Robert Curtis and Joseph Liebman to the Plaintiffs’ Leadership Committee
Judge Highberger appointed Alex Robertson, to be one of three lead attorneys in the case, with the responsibility to more or less run the entire case as to all non-government plaintiffs. This appointment is in recognition of Alex’ significant expertise in trials of large natural catastrophic disasters as well as in recognition of the fact that we represent one of the largest blocks of plaintiffs in the case.
Robert Curtis and Joseph Liebman were appointed to the plaintiff’s leadership committee and are responsible, with others on the committee, for assisting in the actual prosecution of the cases and readying them for trial. These appointments are significant and important.
Once a trial date is set in any case, the attorneys for the defense begin to consider how to resolve the case without the necessity of proceeding to trial. This a reality in almost all civil cases. We anticipate now that we have our first trial date, that Edison will begin to assess the need to propose a mediation or settlement protocol that will involve all cases.
May Litigation Update (May 28, 2019)
On May 7, 2019, members of your legal team attended the first court hearing conducted in your cases before Judge Highberger, in the Los Angeles Superior Court (all Woolsey fire cases were transferred to this judge). At the “Initial Status Conference,” Judge Highberger discussed with the fifty-or-so attorneys, how he anticipates managing the current Woolsey Fire cases (in excess of 1,500 plaintiffs currently), to expedite them and get them ready for trial.
The judge then scheduled another status conference for May 14, 2019, which we attended, to address such issues as the leadership structure for plaintiffs, SCE’s’s motion to disqualify a law firm from this litigation. SCE has argued that the law firm participated in joint strategy sessions with SCE while representing SDG&E and PG&E (investor owned utilities) in past wildfire cases. The law firm disputes SCE’s contentions and has opposed SCE’s attempt to have it disqualified. The judge has scheduled another status conference for May 30, 2019 at which time we expect him to issue his decisions and orders on such matters as leadership structure for plaintiffs, Edison’s motion to disqualify,as well as potential trial dates, the possible release of the CalFire report and when that might occur, in addition to the following matters.
1. Appointment of a Leadership Team to Oversee the Litigation
One of the most important issues discussed at the status conference was the creation of a leadership team for this complex case. The leadership team will oversee the pre-trial discovery process and prepare the cases for trial. The court wanted to create a team that could work cohesively, and that represents the interests of many different parties in this litigation, including, individual plaintiffs (homeowners, renters, businesses, etc.), insurance companies, and governmental entities. Under the current proposed leadership structure (which is endorsed by over 50 firms), Alex Robertson will serve as co-lead counsel, and team members Joe Liebman and Robert Curtis will serve on the executive committee. The court will most likely rule on which attorneys will serve on leadership at the next hearing set for May 30, 2019.
2. When and how should discovery be conducted in this case?
As these are complex cases, the judge wants to be actively involved in the discovery process. Discovery is the phase of litigation when parties are entitled to obtain pertinent information from the opposing side. Parties can, among other things: request documents be produced, and have their questions answered under oath. The court is allowing limited discovery at this juncture, having stayed all other discovery, excepted some very targeted and limited discovery, pending the next status conference later this month. We expect the judge to set new deadlines and give guidance on how he sees the case proceeding; we will update you after attending.
3. How will the court handle preference cases?
Legally, if a plaintiff is over 70 and has health issues, or is terminally ill with 6 months to live, that party can petition the court for “preference,” to have their case heard earlier. The court must set a trial date no more than 120 days after granting such a motion. During the conference, the judge stated that he will want to consider just how preference cases will be handled and we expect this issue to be discussed on May 30th.
4. Should inverse condemnation apply to SCE?
SCE is challenging the application of the legal theory of inverse condemnation to your cases. Inverse condemnation has been applied to California wildfires for over twenty years. Application of inverse condemnation essentially results in strict liability for the utilities: meaning it is necessary only to prove they started the fire, rather than the higher burden of proving negligence (the standard utilities are seeking to be held to). You can learn more about inverse condemnation here: http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-utilities-wildfir…
PG&E lost its challenge to inverse condemnation in the 2015 Butte Fire and 2017 North Bay Fires, and SCE lost its challenge in the 2017 Thomas Fire case. SCE’s motion on inverse condemnation is currently set to be heard on August 15, 2019. We expect the judge will deny SCE’s Motion
5. When will the CalFire report be issued in the Woolsey Fire?
As many of you recently read in the media, CalFire recently released its report on the cause and origin of the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire fire in California history. That fire started on November 8, 2018, the same day the Woolsey Fire began. Given that CalFire just released its report on the Camp Fire, we expect the report on the Woolsey Fire to be released in the near future. Historically, CalFire took around 6 months to release a report. However, recently, CalFire has been taking longer to issue its reports.
6. CalFire investigation into the cause and origin of the Woolsey Fire.
We recently obtained an itemization of the items taken by CalFire when they inspected the two ignition points of the Woolsey Fire on November 19, 2018. The itemization is attached to this letter as Exhibit A. Items taken include, among other things: guy wires, lashing wires, the top of wooden pole, and jumpers. If you want to learn more about our investigation into the cause of the Woolsey Fire (which includes our theory of how the fire started and the supporting evidence), you can view our website at: http://www.woolseylawyers.com/about-the-woolsey-fire
March Litigation Update (March 26, 2019)
As we stated in our prior update, the Court granted our petition to coordinate the Woolsey Fire cases before one judge in Los Angeles Superior Court. The Court has assigned the Honorable William F. Highberger to oversee the cases. We are waiting for Judge Highberger to schedule an initial status conference.
Near the time of the first status conference, the judge will assign a leadership team to prosecute the case and will issue orders relating to the timing of discovery. The leadership team will be composed of experienced attorneys for the individual plaintiffs, insurance companies, and governmental entities who are all suing Southern California Edison (SCE). We anticipate that we will occupy key leadership positions in the case, given our experience, leadership roles we currently hold in the Thomas Fire cases, and the many, many clients we represent.
We anticipate that SCE will do everything in its power to drag this case out for as long as it can, but neither we nor the Court will allow this to happen. SCE’s goal is to delay this case past the 2-year mark, which is the statute of limitations for emotional distress claims. If SCE is able to do this, then people who have claims for only emotional distress, and have not yet filed suit, will no longer be able to sue SCE.
In past wildfire cases, the utility defendants began to discuss settlement on average approximately eighteen to twenty months after the fire. Our goal will be to have the judge set a trial date, and exert pressure on SCE through discovery, so that SCE will push to get your matters settled rather than face a jury trial. It is our belief that SCE does not want to have this happen.
Cal Fire Finds Edison at Fault for the 2017 Thomas Fire
While the cause of the Woolsey Fire is still under investigation by Cal Fire, the state agency vested with the obligation and authority to investigate the cause and origin of the fire, Cal Fire recently released its reports into the cause of the 2017 Thomas Fire, which burned over 280,000 acres and destroyed over 1,000 structures. You can learn more about Cal Fire’s findings on the Thomas Fire below:
Cal Fire found the first ignition—above Steckel Park, in Anlauf Canyon—was caused by SCE’s powerlines contacting each other during high winds (“line slap”). This contact produced “molten aluminum particles,” which fell onto dry vegetation, igniting the fire. The full report available here: http://www.vcfd.org/images/news/Koenigstein-Fire-Investigative-Report_R…
In its second report, Cal Fire similarly found SCE’s equipment caused the Thomas Fire’s subsequent ignition, at Koenigstein Road, in Santa Paula: finding an energized conductor separated near a pole, resulting in an electrical arc. This arc resulted in molten metal being deposited on the ground below, which sparked the second ignition. The full report is available here: http://www.vcfd.org/images/news/Thomas-Fire-Investigation-Report_Redact…
Cal Fire’s findings have confirmed our conclusions on the Thomas Fire’s origins, which we alleged in the complaints we filed back in December 2017 against SCE. As you may recall from our last update, Cal Fire recently found SCE at fault for the Road Runner fire, which started in Thousand Oaks, around 1 ½ hours prior to the Woolsey Fire. You can learn more about our initial investigation into the cause of the Woolsey Fire, as well as the Road Runner Fire, at our website:
SCE’s Fourth Quarter Wildfire Charge
Many clients have inquired about SCE’s ability to pay claims arising from the Thomas and Woolsey Fires. SCE has a twenty-billion-dollar market cap, adequate insurance, and access to capital markets. Recently, in their 4th quarter earnings call, SCE stated they expect to pay $1.8 billion, after insurance and tax benefits, for damages arising from the: Thomas Fire, Montecito Debris Flow, and Woolsey Fire. Learn more about SCE’s statements on its wildfire liability below:
February Litigation Update (February 26, 2019)
In December 2018, our team filed a JCCP petition with the Judicial Council of California to coordinate the Woolsey Fire cases. This was also done in the Thomas Fire cases. A petition is typically filed in cases where multiple, complex lawsuits are filed in multiple counties that involve the same or similar facts and/or circumstances. The effect of the cases being designated by the Judicial Council as a JCCP is to coordinate all of the lawsuits that were, and will be, filed in front of one judge for pre-trial purposes.
The reason the JCCP procedure exists is for situations such as the Woolsey Fire. It allows efficiency by having one judge make decisions concerning the case as a whole. The alternative would be to have thousands of lawsuits pending before numerous judges, with the potential for inconsistent rulings, and added delay and confusion. A single judge managing the cases will enable him or her to become familiar with the case, control the pace of the litigation, make appropriate rulings and orders to ensure that the parties get access to evidence, and set realistic trial dates.
On February 19, 2019, the Judicial Council issued an order granting our petition. The cases are to be assigned to one judge in the Complex Litigation Department of the Superior Court of Los Angeles. We are currently using the JCCP procedure in the 2017 Thomas Fire cases, and believe the same judge, Hon. Daniel Buckley, may be assigned.
After a judge is assigned to your case, he or she will set an initial status conference. Around the time of the first status conference, the judge will assign a leadership team to prosecute the case, and the judge will issue orders relating to the timing of discovery. The leadership team will be composed of experienced attorneys for the individual plaintiffs, insurance companies, and governmental entities. Under the rules governing discovery (the means by which we obtain evidence), we will be allowed to obtain evidence necessary for proving SCE’s liability for the Woolsey Fire. Among other things, we can request documents from SCE, take sworn depositions, and have SCE respond to written questions under oath. We expect the judge to bifurcate discovery to focus on liability first (for example, the cause and origin of the fire), and then later damages (this will involve questions about your personal damages).
As we have told many of you during prior conversations, we believe SCE will do everything in its power to drag this case out for as long as it can. SCE’s goal is to delay this case past the 2-year mark, which is the statue of limitations for emotional distress claims. If SCE is able to do this, then people who have claims for only emotional distress, and have not filed a claim, will no longer be able to file claims. In past wildfire cases, the utility defendants started to discuss settlement on average approximately a year and eight months after the fire. Our goal will be to have the judge set a trial date, and exert pressure on SCE through discovery, so that SCE will push to get your matters settled rather than face a jury trial. It is our belief that SCE does not want to have this matter tried in front of a jury. As the Thomas Fire case proceeds against SCE, we should get more insight into SCE’s litigation and settlement strategy.
Recent Woolsey Fire and Lawsuit News Articles
Experts warn of increased wildfires this summer:
Interview with lawyer Alex Robertson about Thomas Fire and Woolsey Fire trial dates:
Judge in Woolsey Fire cases disqualifies law firm from representing fire victims based on conflict of interest:
PG&E’s BK Judge approves $105 million compensation fund to aid Camp Fire survivors:
As Paradise recovers from the Camp Fire, PG&E commits to undergrounding power lines:
CalFire issues report finding PG&E’s power lines at fault for causing the Camp Fire, which caused the loss of over 18,000 structures and 88 lives:
Crews have removed 250,000 pounds of debris from the 2018 Woolsey and Hill Fire burn areas:
LA County Sues SCE for $100 million in damages relating to the 2018 Woolsey Fire:
Interview with Alex Robertson regarding Cal Fire’s report, which found SCE at fault for starting the 2017 Thomas Fire:
Another lawsuit filed against SoCal Edison over the Woolsey Fire. Woolsey Fire Lawyers’ Alex Robertson is interviewed about the status of our case:
Woolsey fire hazardous clean up nears 100% completion:
Seventh lawsuit filed against Edison over the Woolsey Fire:
SCE unveils wildfire prevention plan after combat wildfires:
Another Woolsey Fire Lawsuit was filed against So Cal Edison:
CAL Fire Report Finds So Cal Edison’s power lines caused the Roadrunner Fire which ignited 1-1/2 hours prior to the Woolsey Fire starting:
More Woolsey Fire Lawsuits filed against Sol Cal Edison:
Deluge of Storms trigger rock and mud slides in Woolsey Fire burn area:
Woolsey Fire-ravaged Malibu winery and nearby homeowners sue SCE, alleging utility started Woolsey Fire that destroyed 1,600 structures:
NBC News Article about recent lawsuit (filed on behalf of 200 individuals) against So Cal Edison over the Woolsey Fire:
Interview with Woolsey Fire Lawyer team member Joe Leibman about So Cal Edison’s decision to sue the City and County of Santa Barbara over the Montecito Mudslides:
170 homeowners and businesses sue Southern California Edison after Woolsey fire
Homeowners and Business File Lawsuit Against SoCal Edison Related to Woolsey Fire
Ventura County man sues Edison alleging negligence started the Woolsey Fire
The lawsuits allege the fire was ignited by Edison’s overhead electrical equipment near the Rocketdyne facility in Simi Valley.
Southern California Edison is blamed for ‘failing to maintain its overhead electrical facilities in a safe manner and perform vegetation management’ in first Woolsey Fire lawsuit
NFL hall-of-famer Eric Dickerson, rare automobile collector and celebrity photographer renting out his studio to Lady Gaga are among 170 people suing Southern California electricity company for ‘starting Woolsey Fire’
A Man from Ventura County is Suing Edison Claiming Negligence Started the Woolsey Fire:
Report: CPUC launches PG&E, SCE probes after 3 deadly fires:
Woolsey Fire Lawyer team member, Alex Robertson, was interviewed by Bloomberg about SCE liability for the Woolsey Fire:
Camp Fire victim: PG&E told her it needed to fix sparking transmission line day before deadly blaze:
Woolsey Fire Lawyer team member Alex Robertson interviewed by the Daily Mail about link to SCE fault and Woolsey Fire:
California’s new utility bailout law may not protect utilities from litigation expenses associated with the Woolsey Fire.
Electrical circuit went down 2 minutes before Woolsey Fire was reported, SoCal Edison says:
Edison says it is cooperating with investigators after the Woolsey Fire: