A firefighting helicopter makes water drops near Southern California Edison's transmission lines as the Thomas Fire burned near Highway 150.

Paul Wellman

A firefighting helicopter makes water drops near Southern California Edison's transmission lines as the Thomas Fire burned near Highway 150.

SoCal Edison Loses Opening Round in Thomas Fire Litigation

Judge Anderle Slaps Power Giant with Restraining Order

Judge Thomas Anderle ruled in favor of 36 families suing SoCal Edison for causing the Thomas Fire and the subsequent Montecito debris flow that killed at least 21 people, granting a temporary restraining order that requires the utility company to preserve, protect, and warehouse damaged utility poles and other equipment extricated from where the fire originated near Santa Paula. Within 30 days, SoCal Edison must allow investigators for the plaintiffs access to the damaged equipment for inspection.

SoCal Edison spokesperson Steven Conroy insisted the company would have done the same without a judge’s order “out of an abundance of caution,” adding that the damaged poles and transformers had to be removed to restore service and would have been warehoused regardless. Conroy noted that the cause of the wildfire has not been established; Cal Fire officials are still investigating.

Representing the plaintiffs, Robert Curtis stated Anderle’s ruling guarantees access to the equipment in question sooner rather than later. He noted that in a past case, Edison was fined $17 million — part of a $37 million settlement — by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for allegedly lying about the cause of the 2007 Malibu Fire, misrepresenting evidence, and chopping up old utility poles and other equipment into so many parts that no forensic sense could be made of them. The company was fined again for similar misrepresentations surrounding a Santa Ana windstorm that left 440,000 customers without electricity in 2011.

The City of Santa Barbara has also filed a lawsuit against SoCal Edison. The company’s failure to maintain its power lines and equipment, the city’s lawsuit alleges, was “despicable,” subjecting the plaintiffs to “cruel and unjust hardship.” The disaster was “entirely preventable,” not to be dismissed as “an Act of God,” the lawsuit alleges. The filing by City Hall brings the total number of lawsuits against SoCal Edison in connection with the Thomas Fire to 14. Of those, one is the mass tort case that gave rise to the temporary restraining order argued in Judge Anderle’s courtroom. Another is a class action lawsuit. The rest are individual claims.

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