Southern California Edison has come under legal scrutiny following the Woolsey Fire, from both victims and investors. The attorneys who sued Edison over the Thomas Fire filed suit recently on behalf of victims of the Woolsey Fire, which has claimed three lives and destroyed more than 1,500 structures. At about the same time, stock prices fell dramatically for SoCal Edison’s parent company, Edison International, prompting an investor class action.
In the Woolsey Fire, SoCal Edison disclosed to the California Public Utilities Commission on November 8 that a circuit outage near Chatsworth occurred two minutes before the fire was reported on November 7. By the following Monday, when the CPUC announced it was investigating Edison for the fire, its stock price had fallen by more than 12 percent, according to the investor lawsuit. Filed in the federal Central District Court for California, the investor suit alleges the utility failed to disclose to purchasers that its lines and equipment were neither safe nor in compliance with state law. The share price ultimately fell 32 percent, according to multiple media accounts.
The Woolsey incident is still under investigation by Cal Fire and Ventura County Fire, and the cause of the fire has not been determined. A spokesperson for Edison said the company was focused on restoring power to Malibu and helping its customers. Fire officials also have not yet stated an official cause for the Thomas Fire.
Edison admitted in October that it believed its equipment ignited one of the fires blamed for starting the 281,000-acre Thomas conflagration in December 2017. In the interval, Pacific Gas & Electric was pleading with Governor Jerry Brown and California legislators for relief from its liability in the massive Northern California fires that burned during fall 2017. The Legislature convened hearings in August on the first version of the governor’s bill, Senate Bill 901. The electrical giant, backed up by SoCal Edison, argued that drought and dead trees from climate change were partly to blame for the deadly swift spread of the fires. Legislators, however, argued the liability part of the utilities’ plea to a standstill. Claims against PG&E were estimated at $10 billion, according to media reports, in the October 2017 fires. Already NorCal attorneys are putting damages in the Camp Fire at $20 billion, E&E Energywire reported, against about $2 billion in net income.
In September, the governor signed the second iteration of SB 901, a bill written by State Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa), which allows utilities to raise bonds to pay “costs and expenses,” including wildfire victim payouts, and to charge ratepayers for those bond costs, but only if the California Public Utility Commission finds the utility acted reasonably to design, operate, and maintain its equipment to avoid a fire, and that it reasonably monitored and anticipated wildfire. The bill, which applies after January 1, 2019, specifically includes fires that started in 2017. It also directs the utility to tell the CPUC whether climate conditions affected the severity of the resulting fire, and the new provisions include a requirement for wildfire plans to be put in place by the utilities. The bill also contains numerous grant programs for forestry and wildland-urban areas.
Joseph Liebman, a Santa Barbara attorney pursuing the fire litigation for victims, along with Robertson & Associates of Westlake Village and Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis of Santa Barbara, said the implications of Dodd’s Senate Bill 901 await an interpretation by the courts, as often is the case with new laws. Talking about the red flag warning that was in effect when the Woolsey Fire began and Edison’s previous announcement that it would power down the grid if fire-weather conditions demanded it, Liebman commented, “The utilities sell a product that is inherently dangerous. They have to step up to the plate and stop this. They’re the only ones who can.”