Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

SDG&E explains countersuit threat to establish rights

The plans by San Diego Gas & Electric to counter-sue October 2007 fire victims serves the purpose of establishing the utility’s legal rights and obligation limits in the event of a lawsuit against SDG&E.

“We find ourselves in the middle of litigation, and it’s our obligation to our customers as well as our shareholders to preserve our legal rights,” said SDG&E spokesperson Stephanie Donovan. “If these cases go to trial we want to make sure all of the evidence is on the table.”

The preliminary assessment is that the Witch, Guajito, and Rice fires were caused by SDG&E power lines, and 15 class-action plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against SDG&E. “We certainly recognize that the October 2007 fires were devastating,” Donovan said.

SDG&E’s response included a proposal to countersue those plaintiffs for failure to maintain proper vegetation clearance. “The proposal that we have made is to file countersuits only against those homeowners who have sued us,” Donovan said. “We want to protect our legal rights.”

The countersuits would be intended to establish proportional liability for the damages. “That should at least be considered,” Donovan said. “If these cases go to trial we think that all of that relevant information should be presented.”

The countersuit possibility was conveyed to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “We have not filed anything at this point,” Donovan said. “Rather than calling us to discuss it, they simply went directly to the media.”

The October 2007 fires also included the Harris and Poomacha blazes, but those have not been attributed to power lines and no lawsuits against SDG&E have been filed related to those fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection believes that the Rice Fire started when heavy winds in Rainbow caused a tree branch to blow into power lines. The apparent cause of the Guajito Fire was high winds blowing a Cox Communications cable into an SDG&E power line, which caused arcking and ignited brush. CalFire also believes that arcking caused the Witch Fire when two power lines were blown together and dry vegetation was ignited.

“They still have testing to run and all of that information has yet to come out,” Donovan said. “A comprehensive determination of liability has not been established.”

Donovan indicated a possibility that SDG&E would have some liability for its own failure to maintain vegetation around power lines. “I think a reasonable person would understand that it’s very difficult to keep 100 percent of your properties in compliance 100 percent of the time,” she said.

SDG&E is responsible for maintaining approximately 400,000 trees in its service territory. A regular maintenance schedule determines trimming evaluations of specific trees, and a customer request for trimming will generate an SDG&E review of whether such trimming is warranted. In some cases the trimming is complicated when property owners object to the removal of certain branches.

Since the analysis of the fires might determine that the contact was from branches blown off during the high winds rather than branches close enough to the power lines to send wires to the ground and ignite brush, the high winds may also affect proportional liability. “You have to take into consideration what was going on at the time,” Donovan said. “We believe that our trees were in compliance.”

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