Pacific Gas & Electric said Tuesday that it is legally responsible for the explosion of a gas pipe in San Bruno last year that killed eight people and has been the source of more than 100 lawsuits from victims.
"This is about acknowledging accountability, and that's exactly what we're doing," PG&E President Chris Johns said in a phone interview. "Our belief is that this will hopefully allow victims to get through this process faster than they would have otherwise."
The admission, which drew skepticism from victims' attorneys, comes in response to a directive from San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Steven Dylina. As a Friday hearing on the lawsuits approaches, he ordered the utility to say whether or not it accepted blame for the Sept. 9, 2010, blast.
"They don't have to try whether we were admitting whether we were negligent," said Johns. "We are admitting that up front."
But victims' attorneys questioned whether the announcement is a genuine act of contrition or just a publicity stunt intended to rehabilitate the company's bruised image. Frank Pitre, who represents many of the victims, said it's the latter.
He added that PG&E could use this admission in an effort to bypass the liability portion of the trial, which is set to start July 23. During that stage the victims' attorneys are able to tell jurors about problems with the utility's operations. The National Transportation Safety Board, which faulted PG&E for the blast, slammed it for poorly kept records and lacking safety inspections.
"This is PG&E's effort to sweep everything under the rug. They admit fault without having to expose PG&E executives who chose profits over safety," said Pitre. "Everybody in their right mind already knows PG&E is responsible."
Johns wouldn't speculate on what the admission means for the plaintiffs' attorneys. Instead he reiterated his claim that the announcement is intended to speed resolution for those who lost loved ones or homes or were hurt in the blast. However, he said it doesn't preclude a trial or mean the utility will start writing checks.
PG&E's admission will likely be part of legal filings to be made in San Mateo County Superior Court before the Friday hearing. PG&E said the papers hadn't been filed on Tuesday.
At this week's hearing both sides are set to decide on the types of cases that will go to trial. It would take years to individually try each lawsuit, so attorneys have agreed to choose cases that represent a type of victim. The process is fraught with battles though, as attorneys have an interest in choosing cases that typify or downplay the destruction.
If PG&E's admission does result in some evidence being tossed out, the effect may not be permanent. Plaintiff attorney Mike Danko said the victims are still seeking punitive damages, which are jury-awarded payments intended to punish PG&E. The jury would consider those payments in an additional stage of the trial, where the victims' attorneys could attack the utility's corporate and safety culture. Any previously excluded evidence of wrongdoing could be brought back or presented in a different form.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335.