REDWOOD CITY -- PG&E argues it shouldn't be on the hook for millions of dollars in punitive damages stemming from the San Bruno blast because it didn't know its gas pipe was fatally flawed, according to a recently filed motion.
State and federal authorities have slammed the utility for shoddy gas system records, but now the utility is citing a lack of knowledge of the flaws in its defense against the hundreds of people who sued after the September 2010 explosion.
The company "never had any actual knowledge" that the pipe "would create any probable risk of dangerous consequences to public safety," according to a legal motion filed Friday in San Mateo County Superior Court. "To the contrary, all that Pacific Gas & Electric knew" was that the flawed line "had been operated without any safety incidents for decades."
The utility is pushing Judge Steven Dylina to toss out the possibility of punitive damages, which would be in addition to the compensation the utility said it will pay families who lost homes, family members or were hurt in the explosion. Dylina is slated to rule on the matter at an Oct. 15 hearing, and a trial date for the cases is set for mid-January.
Attorneys for the fire survivors said the utility's filing was contradictory.
"This is like the guy who kills his parents pleading for mercy because he's orphan," said plaintiffs attorney Mike Danko. "They created this situation and they are trying to benefit from
Federal investigators found the faulty pipe tore open along a poorly welded seam and had been incorrectly classified in PG&E's records. However, no definitive evidence has ever surfaced on who built the deadly section of pipe.
PG&E said the matter will be decided by the court and added it continues to work with the victims.
"From the beginning our priority has been assisting the residents of San Bruno, working with the victims of this tragedy and working to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again," said utility spokeswoman Brittany Chord.
In its filing the utility notes California law requires proof that the utility "disregarded a specific, known danger," knew problems were likely and yet behaved "despicably." The company also says the survivors' attorneys haven't shown the utility knew the pipe was going to blow up and result in a fire that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
"The court should grant PG&E's motion so that these cases can move forward to provide plaintiffs with compensation for their losses," wrote utility attorney John Lyons.
In their court papers filed in August, attorneys for the survivors argued that the company had repeatedly put profits over safety. They cited examples like the company chopping safety spending from 2008-2010, which left the pipeline maintenance budget "25 percent below 'recommended minimum level.' "
They also included a deposition from PG&E Senior Gas Engineer Todd Arnett who said he told his bosses the company's computer system for keeping track of the pipeline system was riddled with errors. He said he told them about it, yet they did nothing to fix it.
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.