A state-appointed panel advised last week that California should change the standard for determining whether utilities are liable for wildfires. Under the current system, California’s Public Utilities Code § 2106 provides a private right of action by any person or entity that has suffered loss, damages, or injury caused by prohibited or unlawful acts of a public utility. Relying on this statute, property owners have asserted wildfire-related claims directly against allegedly culpable electric utility companies. Public utilities in California also face inverse condemnation claims arising out of wildfires. Under inverse condemnation, where private property is taken for public use and later damaged by the state or its agency, the state or agency is strictly liable to the property owner.
In an effort to reduce the financial impact on public utilities resulting from wildfires—as exemplified by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s recent filing for Chapter 11 protection in January—the California Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery recommended changing the current laws to reflect a fault-based standard. According to the panel, this change would reduce the risk of bankruptcy and decrease the cost of capital. The commission also recommended establishing a wildfire victims’ fund and setting up an electric utility wildfire board to handle the prevention and mitigation of utility-related wildfires.
Reprinted courtesy of Hunton Andrews Kurth attorneys Lawrence J. Bracken II, Sergio F. Oehninger, Paul T. Moura and Alexander D. Russo
Mr. Bracken may be contacted at lbracken@HuntonAK.com
Mr. Oehninger may be contacted at soehninger@HuntonAK.com
Mr. Paul may be contacted at pmoura@HuntonAK.com
Mr. Alexander may be contacted at arusso@HuntonAK.com