Pacific Gas & Electric customers cannot sue the power giant for losses incurred during power shutoffs designed to protect the public from wildfires, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Such litigation would interfere with the California Public Utilities Commission’s “comprehensive regulatory and supervisory authority” over such safety shutoffs and is therefore barred under state law, Justice Goodwin Liu wrote in a unanimous decision for the state’s high court.
The ruling is a significant win for embattled PG&E, which crawled out of bankruptcy in 2020 after collapsing under $30 billion in liabilities from wildfires sparked by its equipment. Litigation over safety cutoffs, if allowed, would have potentially exposed the company to billions of dollars of additional liabilities.
The company in a statement Monday said its “most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve,” which such shutoffs aim to protect. But the utility also said it is working to improve service during dangerous weather conditions.
“We know that losing power significantly disrupts people’s lives,” the company said.
It said improvements in the works include “updating forecasting and fire-risk modeling; improving technology and tools to identify scope and potential impacts; and strengthening community engagement with stakeholders.”
The ruling stems from a separate federal case in which plaintiff Anthony Gantner accused PG&E of harming him and other customers by repeatedly shutting off power to reduce the risk of its infrastructure igniting wildfires during extreme weather conditions in the fall of 2019.
Gantner alleged the shutoffs were only necessary because PG&E had failed to properly maintain its power grid for decades. He claimed in court that the company owed him and other customers $2.5 billion as a result to cover “loss of habitability of their dwellings, loss of food items in their refrigerators, expenses for alternative means of lighting and power, . . . loss of cell phone connectivity, dangerous dark conditions, lack of running water, and loss of productivity and business.”
Gantner’s attorneys said in a written statement Monday that it was “a sad day for Californians,” as the court’s opinion “leaves consumers footing the bill” for days- and weeks-long power shutoffs “no matter how negligent PG&E is in maintaining its electric grid and no matter how much damage it causes to its customers,” just as long as it follows the commission’s rules for implementing such shutoffs.
They wrote that they “strongly disagree” with the court’s conclusion that such litigation would interfere with the commission’s authority over PG&E. They wrote that the decision “drastically shifts the balance of power” from consumers to utilities, and urged California lawmakers to “step in” and change that.
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