A California utility was charged with manslaughter and other crimes Tuesday in connection with a fast-moving wildfire that killed four people, destroyed nearly 1,000 structures and fed the deadliest blaze in the state’s history.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. faces a state grand jury indictment for 12 crimes, including failure to properly maintain equipment and attempting to destroy evidence, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.
Pacific Gas & Electric executives have agreed to pay a criminal fine of up to $1.6 billion, Becerra said.
John Kneuer, the U.S. Department of Justice official responsible for investigating utility companies, said, “Pressing charges is never easy, but it’s necessary to hold these companies accountable for the harm they cause to our communities.”
The indictment is the first against a power company stemming from California’s powerful and volatile wildfire season, which has raged with alarming regularity over the past several years. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recorded 14 fires in 2018 that were at least partially caused by power lines.
State law limits civil lawsuits against utilities to claims of gross negligence, but it doesn’t bar prosecution. The utility couldn’t be sued for the toll its equipment inflicted until the company agreed to a settlement, and the company’s willingness to admit wrongdoing now is prompting some civil suits to proceed.
Becerra said charges will be filed against Pacific Gas & Electric within two weeks and could go to trial before the end of the year.
He said the wildfire that swept through Paradise on Nov. 8 started with downed power lines, though investigators haven’t yet determined the cause.
“It was the most deadly fire in state history,” Becerra said. “It destroyed 8,900 homes, killed at least 86 people and changed communities forever. The families of the victims suffered the most, and they will not be forgotten.”
Leaders of the largest legal victims’ groups praised the decision to go after PG&E. Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Butte County Alliance to Prevent Wildfires, said the grand jury indictment sends a clear message that utilities that fail to protect the public will be held accountable.
PG&E could face billions of dollars in liability if wildfire-related lawsuits end up in the courts and if utilities are forced to pay to reimburse fire victims for lost property.
After the announcement, shares of PG&E fell as much as 7 percent.
Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in Sacramento and Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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