Empowering California Residents to Rebuild Their Lives After Devastation

The sweeping damage caused by the Dixie Fire is a stark reflection of how major utilities have consistently chosen profits over diligently maintaining our electrical infrastructure. Igniting north of Cresta Dam in July 2021, the Dixie fire ravaged 963,309 acres across Butte, Lassen, Shasta, and Tehama counties before finally being contained in October 2021. As the smoke dissipated, it revealed the destruction of over 1,329 structures, including 700 homes, with the town of Greenville being completely decimated. This positions the Dixie Fire as the 14th most destructive in California’s recorded history.

When it came time to investigate the cause of such devastation, the responsible party turned out to be very familiar to Mikal C. Watts and the legal team at Watts Law Firm LLP. It was a utility giant they had taken on – and beaten – before.

Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was shown to have neglected proper maintenance of the trees and power lines, causing downed power lines and sparking the catastrophic blaze. This lack of maintenance of trees and power lines was particularly egregious, considering PG&E faced similar situations only a few years before. Such lapses in infrastructure maintenance and vegetation management were involved in the Camp Fire in Butte County and the 2017 North Bay fires in Sonoma County. Mikal C. Watts and Watts Law Firm LLP headed litigation against PG&E for these wildfires, resulting in a $13.5 billion settlement for over 16,000 affected California residents. 

This narrative isn’t just about one utility company’s repeated oversights, as shown in the numerous preventative wildfires in the last decade. It speaks to a broader, systemic issue where utilities, from PG&E to Pacific Power and Southern California Edison, have inadvertently fueled the wildfire epidemic.

Empowering People Affected by Dixie Fires to Rebuild Their Lives

Amidst the ashes lies the undeniable power of the law. For countless individuals whose worlds have been shattered, their homes obliterated, the legal system offers a pathway to rebuild—both literally and metaphorically. By banding together, affected communities can hold accountable those responsible, ensuring not just compensation but a catalyst for lasting change. 

Wildfire litigation is about transforming personal tragedies into collective triumphs and ensuring future generations are safeguarded from similar fates. Our mission is to champion this cause, standing shoulder to shoulder with victims as they navigate their journey to recovery.

Watts Law Firm LLP steps forward with unwavering commitment to the communities most affected. Drawing from our profound experience in mass tort cases, our focus goes beyond merely securing compensation. We recognize that every case represents a person, a family, a lost home, and shattered memories. By representing victims of this tragedy, we aim not only to attain justice for our clients but to also catalyze systemic changes in utility management, holding corporations like PG&E, Pacific Power, and Southern California Edison accountable and preventing others from experiencing similar harm in the future.

At the heart of Watts Law Firm LLP lies the core belief in the strength of the individual voice, especially when amplified by a formidable and dedicated team. Our reputation as a force within the legal realm is well-established, having taken on some of the world’s largest corporations and industries—and won. Our prowess is especially evident in wildfire litigation, where our understanding of the intricacies associated with utility companies and infrastructure management sets us apart.

Individual Attention for Families Affected by the Dixie Fire

Choosing Watts Law Firm LLP means aligning with a team of seasoned litigators, compassionate advisors, and fierce advocates. Founding Attorney Mikal C. Watts, known for his dedication to justice and direct client communication, will ensure that victims are kept well-informed every step of the way. Mikal understands that communication is a priority in an attorney-client relationship, even when the law firm represents thousands of clients in the lawsuit. 

In mass tort litigation, like the Dixie Fire litigation, Mikal does not want any client to feel as though they are lost in the crowd. He ensures each of our clients are kept informed on the statuses of their cases in a twofold manner. Firstly, Watts Law Firm LLP has the immense resources and legal staff needed to be available to clients for status updates and to answer any questions. Moreover, Mikal wants to understand his clients on a personal level. Mikal often travels to every city affected by fire litigation to hold town-hall style meetings in person no less than every 90 days. In those meetings, Mikals speaks directly to clients and personally addresses their concerns. When in person meetings aren’t feasible, Mikal holds telephonic town meetings via the internet.

For those affected by the Dixie Fire, joining forces with Watts Law Firm LLP means being part of a larger movement. Not only will you be seeking compensation for personal losses but also be a part of a collective force ensuring that lapses in utility infrastructure maintenance become a thing of the past. Our goal is to ensure that future generations are safeguarded from such catastrophes.

Empower Your Dixie Fire Claim

In an environment where it may seem that large corporate utility giants hold all the power, Watts Law Firm LLP is here to balance the scales. As we have done in the past, we will challenge those in power, empower the affected, and drive meaningful change. The story of the Dixie Fire is not just one of loss but can be one of hope, resilience, and transformation. Watts Law Firm LLP is committed to leading the charge, standing with victims every step of the way.

FAQs about Dixie Fire Litigation, Wildfire Litigation and PG&E

Are Mental Anguish and Emotional Distress Claims of Fire Victims?

If someone damages your property or causes a nuisance, you can claim damages for the emotional distress it causes you. This is true even if you weren’t physically present when the damage happened.

In a prior case involving fire litigation, courts have provided guidance on what claims can be made against PG&E for the North California fires in October 2017. In a case titled Hensley V. San Diego Gas & Electric Co., the California Court of Appeals clarified the following: 

  1. It’s well-established that property owners can claim damages for emotional distress caused by property damage or nuisance.
  2. This was challenged by the utility company in the Hensley case. They argued that fire victims who weren’t at home when their property was damaged shouldn’t be able to claim emotional distress damages.
  3. The court disagreed. They ruled that you can claim damages for emotional distress caused by property damage or nuisance, whether you were there when it happened or not.

This means that if your property was damaged by the fires, you can claim emotional distress damages, even if you weren’t home at the time. And for those who were home and had to escape the fires, the case for claiming damages is even stronger.

What Damages Can Be Sought For Injury or Loss of Trees?

If your trees were damaged or destroyed by a fire, your insurance might only cover a limited amount per tree, such as $500 to $750. They might even have a maximum amount they’ll pay for all your trees. However, you can sue the ones responsible for the fire for the actual value of the trees, not just this limited amount. Besides the actual worth of the trees, California law might let you recover extra damages like legal fees and emotional distress from losing the trees.

A lot of property owners lost or had trees damaged by the Dixie Fire. If you only lost trees, you still have a valid claim. Replacing lost trees can be expensive. Plus, tree loss can cause other problems like soil erosion, damaged fences, or ruined roads. If you lost trees because of the fire, get in touch with us to make a claim.

You’re not just limited to the timber’s value when claiming for tree loss. You can also claim for the emotional pain it caused. According to a California court ruling in Fulle v. Kanani, damages can be based on the property’s reduced value or even the costs of getting the property back to its original state. This can be true even if restoration costs more than the loss in value, especially if the owner has a personal reason to restore.

How Are Costs Handled?

Our firm will cover all litigation costs against PG&E. If there’s no payout, you owe us nothing. Not every law firm can handle the significant expenses of suing a major company like PG&E. Watts Law Firm LLP is willing and able to invest heavily in cases for our clients.

Clients often wonder about expenses. There are two types:

  • Specific Expenses: Costs related to your unique situation, like appraising a lost art collection. You’d be informed before any such expense is made.
  • General Expenses: Costs shared among all clients, like proving PG&E’s liability. As an example, if there are 2000 clients and $20 million in expenses, the average would be $10,000 per client. However, this is just an estimate, and actual costs might vary.

Though it’s essential to consider these costs, they’re usually minimal compared to potential recoveries. If you have any questions or concerns, please call us.

Empower Your Dixie Fire Claim

Why is PG&E Cutting Down 25,000 Trees?

In November 2017, The Press Democrat reported that PG&E is planning to remove 25,000 burned trees near its designated areas. As you travel through the region, you can easily spot PG&E actively removing trees. This raises two pressing questions: Why is PG&E only acting after the fires to remove these trees? And, why were there so many trees close to these areas to begin with?

While PG&E says it’s removing burned trees, observations show they’re also cutting down many that are unburned. Could they have prevented the fires if they’d acted sooner? Or, are they removing them now to hide evidence?

It’s concerning that PG&E is only now addressing the 25,000 trees, post-fire, which they could’ve managed beforehand. Many trees, currently near power lines, only seem to be getting attention after the disaster. Any tree large enough to fall onto power lines poses a risk. Likewise, trees and shrubs beneath these lines can act as fuel for fires. If a live power line drops and comes in contact with this vegetation, it can ignite a wildfire. Ideally, PG&E should ensure their power lines remain upright and, if they do fall, they shouldn’t be active. An active, fallen power line can ignite a fire if there’s nearby fuel.

California’s regulatory body, the PUC, mandates utilities like PG&E to maintain the safety of their power lines, especially against potential tree hazards and fire risks. Records from October 2017 show trees did fall onto PG&E’s lines, a fact PG&E self-reported due to regulatory requirements. Active power lines are already hazardous, and those that have fallen are even more so.

What Fire Danger do Utility Lines Pose?

The Press Democrat reported on October 17, 2017, that failures of power lines are among the leading causes of wildfires in California in recent years. Specifically, in 2015, issues related to electricity led to fires burning over 149,000 acres, a figure higher than any other known cause.

This data doesn’t even include the extensive fires from October 2017, which further amplified the damage. In California, electric lines have long been recognized as a significant fire hazard, a fact acknowledged since the early days of power lines.

There are several factors and scenarios related to power lines that can exacerbate the risk of fires. The prolonged drought over the past 5 years has heightened the flammability of the environment. With the intensified dry conditions, any fire, whether caused by power lines or other sources, becomes more dangerous and predictable.

Poorly maintained power poles can be vulnerable during strong winds or when hit by a tree. Such incidents can lead to live power lines making contact with the ground, presenting a potential fire risk. Additionally, when trees or branches fall onto power lines, they can cause these lines to break, touch each other, or even fall, all of which are scenarios that can lead to fires. Even transformers, when hit by trees, can become sources of fire.

The risk further amplifies when the area beneath power lines is cluttered with dried trees and brush. Utility companies may face accountability if these areas aren’t appropriately managed. Moreover, if fallen power lines remain electrified, they pose a significant fire threat. Immediate deactivation of these lines is crucial for safety. Some equipment might inadvertently channel power to downed lines, further escalating the risk.

What Are the Types of Losses and Damages?

Regardless of your insurance status, many find that their coverage doesn’t fully account for all the damages, especially those that are irreplaceable.

You might experience various types of losses:

  • Fire or smoke damage to businesses
  • Business disruptions or customer loss due to fires
  • Home damages
  • Renters’ damages
  • Property damage
  • Job or income loss
  • Physical injuries
  • Emotional distress
  • Wrongful death

For instance, while insurance might cover the rebuilding of a house, that rebuilt home might be worth less due to neighborhood changes or lost greenery. Opting not to rebuild could also mean your land loses value because of the fire’s impact.

Some insurance policies only cover extra living expenses for two years, and many may not complete their rebuilding within that period. Factors like a shortage of materials or skilled workers can delay this process, causing some to move, which brings additional costs.

Personal belongings in your home, like sentimental photos, heirlooms, or unique collections, might not be fully valued or covered by insurance. Some policies set a limit on the payout for such items. However, such limits don’t determine what you could potentially get through a court case or settlement. You’ll need a comprehensive list of these items. Just because your insurance doesn’t cover something doesn’t mean you can’t get its full value in court.

Using photos or videos from friends and family can help prove your belongings’ existence and value. Any footage showing your property before and after the fire can be particularly valuable.

For business owners, financial documents like tax records or profit-loss statements can evidence income losses if the fire disrupted your operations. If your business faced damages, aside from repair costs, you might also have lost income. It’s essential to document everything thoroughly; the more evidence you have, the better. And remember, just because insurance doesn’t cover a loss doesn’t mean you can’t recover it through legal channels or settlements.

What previous California wildfires have been caused by electric companies?

PG&E has been repeatedly associated with causing fires. The California Supreme Court has addressed multiple cases against them, including those in 1941 and 1955. The 1990 Tehama County fire caused by PG&E burned over 125,892 acres and 27 buildings. In 1994 in Nevada County, PG&E was criminally convicted because their failure to trim trees led to a fire, destroying 34 structures. PG&E was also behind the 2015 Butte fires, which consumed 921 structures.

There have been numerous major fires caused by electric lines over the years, such as those in 1923, 1970, 1990, 2007, 2015, and notably the North Bay fires in 2017.

Highlighting the severity of the issue, San Diego Gas & Electric was held responsible for the 2007 fires, paying over $2 billion in damages. Those fires resulted in two fatalities and the destruction of more than 1,200 homes and businesses. While they recognized their equipment’s role in some of the fires, they didn’t fully admit to being at fault. In a separate 2007 incident, after their utility poles caused fires in Malibu, Southern California Edison had to pay $63.5 million in fines.

Has PG&E Caused Other Wildfires?

PG&E is known for causing fires that destroy homes. The California Supreme Court has dealt with several claims against PG&E, with notable cases from 1941 and 1955. PG&E was responsible for major fires in 1990, 1994, and 2015. By November 2017, over 100 people sued PG&E, claiming the company burned their properties. The California Public Utility Commission has asked PG&E to keep certain evidence, and 911 calls have reported PG&E power lines down in fire areas.

Does PG&E have a history of causing fires?

In 2021, CAL FIRE said PG&E caused the 2019 Kincade fire, which ruined 374 buildings. They also said PG&E started the 2020 Zogg Fire. PG&E faces serious charges for these fires.

In 2020, PG&E admitted to causing the deaths of 84 people in the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. CAL FIRE blamed them for this fire, which destroyed 15,000 homes. CAL FIRE also said PG&E caused 25 fires in 2017, leading to many deaths and damaged homes.

In 2017, the CPUC fined PG&E for the 2015 Butte Fire, which destroyed 549 homes and took two lives. PG&E paid fines of $8.3 million to the CPUC and $90 million to Cal Fire. There are still over 1,000 legal actions against PG&E for this.

Earlier, PG&E was fined for not taking care of its gas lines, causing the 2010 San Bruno explosion. This explosion killed eight people and wrecked 38 homes. They had to pay a $1.6 billion fine, and they were found guilty of several federal safety violations.

In 1994, after trees hit PG&E’s power lines in Nevada County, causing a fire that destroyed 12 homes, they were fined $30 million. It was later discovered that PG&E had moved $80 million meant for tree care to their profits.

Empower Your Dixie Fire Claim

What is the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)?

The CPUC oversees companies in the electric, gas, telecom, water, and transportation sectors. They aim to protect consumers by ensuring safe and affordable utility services while supporting a green California economy. The CPUC has told PG&E to keep evidence related to the California fires’ causes. They’ve set rules for PG&E to manage trees and maintain equipment for public safety. PG&E has also been alerted by the PUC about fire risks due to California’s drought.

Are the Claims Against PG&E a Class Action?

The claims are not part of a class action lawsuit. In a class action, a few people represent a large group with similar concerns. However, fire loss cases are unique to each person. Some might lose personal items, a home, a business, or even a job. Others might face business disruptions or lose customers without a direct fire impact. So, instead of a class action, claims against PG&E are individual. These groups of claims are often termed mass actions or mass tort claims. If you hire our firm, we’ll file an individual claim for you against PG&E.

Who is Pacific Gas and Electric Company/ PG&E?

Pacific Gas and Electric Company, or PG&E, is California’s biggest utility, founded in 1905. It’s one of the top gas and electric companies in the U.S. with its headquarters in San Francisco. It’s under PG&E Corporation, a publicly traded company. The company’s stock dropped when it was suggested their equipment might have caused some of California’s big wildfires.

PG&E has 20,000 workers and delivers gas and electricity to about 16 million people in northern and central California. Even with private owners, the Public Utility Commission oversees it. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has told PG&E to save any information that could show why the fires started. The CPUC has also shared many details about PG&E with the public.

* This information is provided to supply relevant information concerning the PG&E lawsuits, and should not be received as legal advice. If you are already represented by legal counsel please rely upon them for information and advice. No guarantees or representations about the success of the PG&E lawsuits can be drawn from this information.

Mikal Watts

Written on behalf of Mikal Watts, and reviewed by Watts Law Firm LLP

Mikal C. Watts is Board-Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is a Martindale-Hubbel AV Rated Lawyer.