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Bad laws, trial lawyers hover over California fire victims

Bad laws, trial lawyers hover over California fire victims
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Trial lawyers are circling in California, running advertisements that border on unethical and brazenly soliciting citizens who lost homes or businesses in the Santa Rosa wildfires. Under California law, attorneys cannot look for business at accident scenes or hospitals due to a person’s potentially compromised emotional or physical condition. But, that isn’t stopping trial lawyers in California from holding “seminars” and running ads offering people who are vulnerable and emotionally stressed promises of a big payoff in the wake of the wildfires.

Even though there has been no determination regarding the cause of the fires, and it’s far too early to establish liability, many lawyers are rushing to judgment and pointing fingers at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) as a potential cause. Suits filed in Superior Court in San Francisco allege PG&E did not properly maintain power lines or adequately contain vegetation which somehow touched off the fires.   

Let's discuss some of the facts we do know.

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In the wake of California's recent severe drought, PG&E took several steps to mitigate the damage wildfires could cause. These include doubling the spending on line clearing and tree removal, as well as using aerial surveillance and enhanced foot patrols in high-risk areas to spot potential problems. Furthermore, PG&E meets or exceeds all applicable federal and state vegetation clearance requirements and, to date, has committed more than $3 million to local communities affected by this year's horrific wildfires. But, of course, these efforts go unacknowledged by trial lawyers who simply want to have a large utility serve as a "pay for" in their hastily contrived lawsuits.     

California’s anti-business and burdensome regulatory environment is also a big cause for concern as these fire investigations move forward. In California, a rule called “inverse condemnation” essentially states that even if a utility has followed all the rules regarding safety and compliance and has done nothing wrong, the utility may be held liable for property damage and attorneys’ fees associated with an event like a wildfire.

California is one of the only states in the country where courts have applied inverse condemnation liability to events caused by utility equipment. If inverse condemnation is applied, the state utility commission should allow utility costs, over and above insurance coverage, to be shared by customers.    

Wildfires have been a scourge in California and other areas of the arid West for as long as anyone can remember. California’s dry climate and strong winds — Diablo in the north and Santa Anna in the south — are often a wildfire’s best friend.

The region is also dotted with huge national forests, which for decades were governed by disastrous fire-suppression policies. Even after enactment of the Healthy Forests Initiative in the last decade, a law that allows for the removal of dead and diseased trees in national forests, many of the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, remain at risk from wildfire.

What’s more, restrictive zoning laws in cities like San Francisco and San Jose have put home prices out of reach for people of upper-middle, middle, and lower income. Unable to afford homes in high-end urban areas, many people are forced to live in distant suburbs, which puts them closer to areas where fires are likely to occur.

Sadly, the threat of wildfires will always be with us, but indiscriminately laying blame on PG&E is clearly the wrong approach. Citizens impacted by these tragic fires should avoid the lure of legal scams promising fast money and call for an impartial investigation process.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior policy analyst with Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a non-profit promoting positive market-friendly solutions to environmental issues. He is also a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, and serves as a Senior Policy Adviser for the Heartland Institute. Dr. Conner’s articles and commentary have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, New York Post, Washington Times, National Review, and dozens of other newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.