Consumer activist Erin Brockovich, who famously took on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the 1990s, urged California lawmakers Tuesday not to let the utility go bankrupt—because it could mean less money for wildfire victims. "I'm mad, I think we should all be mad," Brockovich said as she stood outside the Capitol in Sacramento alongside people who lost their homes to destructive fires, per the AP. PG&E announced last week it plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because it can't afford to pay at least $30 billion in expected damages due to deadly 2017 and 2018 Northern California wildfires. California law makes utilities entirely liable for damage caused by wildfires sparked by their equipment, even if the utility isn't found to be negligent. The cause of a 2017 fire that swept through Santa Rosa and the 2018 fire that destroyed Paradise are still under investigation, though PG&E is under scrutiny in both cases.
Under a PG&E bankruptcy, wildfire victims who are underinsured or lack insurance likely won't get all of the money they have sued for, experts have said. Brockovich, part of the legal team representing victims of the 2017 fires, and former state lawmaker Noreen Evans suggested the Legislature should allow PG&E to take out state-backed bonds to cover the costs of the 2018 fire and potentially pass some costs to ratepayers to avoid bankruptcy. Lawmakers allowed the utility to pay for 2017 wildfires in a similar manner but did not apply the same standard to 2018 fires. Currently US Judge William Alsup is overseeing a jury verdict against PG&E stemming from a deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion, and he is considering whether the company's role in recent wildfires was a violation of its probation in the criminal case, noting California fire investigators referred 12 wildfires caused by PG&E equipment for possible criminal prosecution.
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