PG&E pleads guilty to charges of manslaughter in deadliest California wildfire in history

More than 80 people killed in 2018 Camp Fire

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PG&E power lines during a firefighting operation in California
PG&E power lines during a firefighting operation in California
(Philip Pacheo / Getty Images)
Last Updated:
March 23, 2020 - 10:22am

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The PG&E Corporation has agreed to plead guilty to charges of felony involuntary manslaughter for its role in sparking a wildfire in Butte County, California, that killed 84 people in 2018.

The indictment charges the company with 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire.

“PG&E acted with criminal negligence, which is a much higher standard than ordinary negligence. … They acted in a way that created a high risk of death,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

This indictment ends a year-long criminal investigation led by Ramsey.

A centerpiece of Ramsey’s investigation was a piece of metal called a “C-hook,” which broke off from a transmission tower, allowing a high-voltage power to fall and start a fire in the brush below the tower.

Fire investigators determined that the hook had worn through about 80% before finally snapping. The ensuing flames essentially destroyed the town of Paradise, California, in addition to becoming the deadliest wildfire in state history.

“It’s an indication of just how bad some of PG&E’s activities have been,” business law professor Will Thomas told the WSJ. It is rare for a company to be saddled with homicide charges.

According to a 2019 report, PG&E understood that several of its high-voltage transmission towers had reached the end of their shelf life. The report indicates that the mean life expectancy of the towers is 65 years. The company’s oldest towers at the time were 108 years old.

PG&E, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, has been struggling to service its Pacific coast territory,

The Pacific coast territory that PG&E services has presented the company with a major problem in the form of massive fires caused, in part, by the decade-long regional drought.

The fires have revealed the incredible dangers with the company’s power grid. PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after being held responsible for billions of dollars in liability costs for its role in the raging California wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

Since filing for protection, PG&E has negotiated settlement claims from insurers, cities, and fire victims for north of $25 billion.