(Photo of site of Hawaiian Village Apartments, Ventura, CA)
Make this call immediately!
California investor-owned utilities, including Southern California Edison, are working at the State Capitol to change California’s liability laws to shield themselves from financial liability if they are found responsible for the devastating recent fires in the State, including the Thomas Fire and the mudslides it caused. Their proposed legislation, AB 33, has already passed the CA Assembly and is heading into its final state Senate votes.
How are they doing this?
Along with Governor Brown, PG&E and SCE are lobbying Sacramento to change California’s application of inverse condemnation law to investor-owned utilities (IOUs) like themselves. They are also trying to have California pass a bond measure that would require ratepayers to reimburse the bonds used to finance wildfire settlements.
What is “inverse condemnation”?
First, let’s start with a term most of us already know – “Eminent Domain”, where the government has the power to force the sale of private property for a public project or use provided that the owner is paid just conpensation. Governments with eminent domain power can sue defendants to force “direct condemnation“.”Inverse condemnation” switches the parties around, with the property owner suing the government for a taking of private property without eminent domain procedures and without payment of compensation. This can included temporary taking/occupation such as flooding.
Is inverse condemnation a new thing?
No. California law has a long history of analyzing wildfires under an inverse condemnation theory. One issue that has been fought in court is whether a private utility company should be treated like a public utility in terms of liability. (Only CA and AL apply inverse condemnation to private companies.) In Barham v. S. Cal. Edison Co. the court ruled that there were no “significant differences exist regarding the operation of publicly versus privately owned electric utilities as applied to the facts in this case and find there is no rational basis upon which to found such a distinction.” SCE was judged liable for the inverse condemnation suits against them.
SCE and PG&E, and apparently, our governor, would like to do their own “inversing”, switching the costs from their shareholders to their customers with a couple of new bills. Under Brown’s proposal, (read statement here) the inverse-condemnation provision would be changed so that a court balances “the public benefit of the cause” of the fire with harm caused to private property and determine whether the utility acted “reasonably.” Separately, an independent evaluator would review each utility’s compliance with a required wildfire mitigation plan, which tracks closely with SB 901. AB 33, allows PG&E to institutes a taxpayer-supported bond system to recoup their losses from last year’s fires.
- It changes a company’s responsibility from strict liability to “reasonable standard”, forcing fire victims into legal battles to be fully compensated after an incident. The bill would apply only to fires started after January 1, 2018. For those who don’t remember, the tragic mudslides caused by the Thomas fire started on Jan. 9th, 2018.
- Investigators have attributed PG&E equipment as the ignition source of 16 wildfires and investors are still waiting for a report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on the company’s role in the Tubbs blaze — the deadliest of last year’s fires.
- Utilities that act prudently and responsibly can already recover loss from ratepaters through CPUC proceedings. Private utilities want to change the rules to reduce their culpability.
- This bill will shift the costs of future wildfires from utility shareholders to insurance companies, and ultimately to individual wildfire victims themselves.
Action #1 – There is an August 31, deadline for the bill to pass.
Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] and I’m a survivor of the______/concerned neighbor, and we want state Senator [___] to vote against AB 33.
Check out which assemblymembers voted FOR it here.
State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (SD-19): SAC (916) 651-4019, SB (805) 965-0862, OX (805)988-1940, email
MORE script if you want it: If a utility, either public or privately owned, causes a wildfire that destroys people’s homes and lives, it should be held responsible under the law – just like everyone else. We respectfully request that you please vote against any legislation which would shield investor-owned utilities from liability for tragedies like the Thomas Fire and the following mud flows or the North Bay Fires.
Additional script ideas: Add your own personal story here. Or that of a friend. Share the story of your loss – how the fire and debris flow has impacted your life and help them understand how unjust it would be for survivors and their communities rather than SCE to be held responsible.
Action #2 – Go talk to your legislators
To counter PG&E and SCE’s lobbyists and ensure our communities will not be left with the bill for utilities’ negligence, an organization called “Up From the Ashes.” is resisting PG&E and SCE’s demands for a free-pass on their liabilities. Please attend a rally on the steps of the state capital, on August 8th, 2018, at 10:00 am. We are inviting any of you who can make it to join us.