Southern California Edison Utility Co. Agrees to $360 Million in Damages for Deadly Wildfires
Southern California Edison, the primary electricity supply company for the greater Los Angeles area, agreed to a $360 million settlement over deadly wildfires caused by their equipment throughout the last two years (including the 2017 Thomas and Koenigstein Fires, the 2018 Montecito Debris Flows, and the 2018 Woolsey Fire). The settlement will be paid to local governments following multiple lawsuits, one of which claimed the utility company incited a mudslide that led to over 20 fatalities. Baron & Budd, a national personal injury law firm based in Encino, made the announcement Wednesday on behalf of a total of 23 public entities.
The settlement will go towards reimbursing counties, cities, and other public agencies for firefighting costs and repairing damages. John Fiske, an attorney representing the local governments, stated that the money will help, “pay the bills to rebuild roads, other infrastructure, and clean up debris, among other things.” The $360 million will not fully repay taxpayer costs, however, nor will it affect the numerous outstanding lawsuits filed by residents, individuals, or businesses affected by the fires and mudslides. The bulk of those lawsuits were filed over deaths and damages from the destruction of homes, which could eventually equate to a massive sum in settlement payouts.
Fiske noted that, “While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” signifying the settlement will cover a substantial portion of the necessary resources. “A lot of these communities…were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost,” he said. Scott Summy, a Baron & Budd Shareholder, stated via press release that, “Local government have suffered after several years of devastating wildfires,” while adding, “This money will replenish taxpayer resources to rebuild communities.”
The group of 23 public entities, comprised of small fire, water, and park agencies, sued Southern California Edison citing, “negligence and improper operation of power lines and equipment, failure to clear vegetation around electric lines, and for not shutting down circuits when high winds created fire danger.” SoCal Edison has admitted no wrongdoing, stating publicly that the settlement did not amount to any liability on their part.
The $360 million overall figure, while significant, is eclipsed by the $1 billion settlement Pacific Gas & Electric recently reached with local governments in Northern California over fires stemming from PG&E equipment. The Northern California fires accounted for much more damage than those in the SoCal Edison suit, however, covering mass amounts of acreage that destroyed over 20,000 homes.
The SoCal Edison settlement will be divided among the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles, in addition to the cities of Santa Barbara, Malibu, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks, and Westlake Village. Attorney John Fiske referred to the settlement as, “The most comprehensive in state history because it involves 23 public entities.”
As climate change has continued to significantly impact California, perhaps more so than any other state, droughts have led to conditions that are ripe for wildfires. Various forms of vegetation are frequently blown into power lines and utility boxes, sparking fast-moving blazes that are accelerated by high winds.
The Thomas Fire, which represented part of the SoCal Edison lawsuit, is said to have begun in Ventura County on December 4, 2017. Dry brush caught fire when it collided with the utility’s power lines during high winds. Two fatalities were reported and a total of 440 square miles were devastated.
Part of the burn zone within those 440 square miles reached the seaside city of Montecito, incinerating a large portion of a mountainside area above the town. Torrential rains, occurring approximately one month later, resulted in a mudslide that killed at least 21 people. Two individuals are still missing, their bodies having never been recovered.