This doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile a corporation can be convicted of a crime. In this case, it’s Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in California, and that corporate entity has pleaded guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter. In case you’re wondering how a company can commit manslaughter, it’s based on the people that died in the wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, killing more than 80 people. The Camp Fire was eventually blamed on faulty PG&E equipment which allegedly sparked the blaze. (National Review)
California electricity provider Pacific Gas & Electric Co. agreed to a plea deal that will see it plead guilty to felony involuntary manslaughter charges for its role in starting the deadliest wildfire in state history.
The company, which disclosed the charges Monday in a regulatory finding, filed for chapter 11 protection last year, after its aging and faulty equipment was blamed for five of the ten most destructive fires in California since 2015.
Butte County, the home of the Camp Fire of November 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people — the deadliest wildfire in California history — charged the company with 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire.
So what happens when a company pleads guilty to a charge involving the death of actual human beings rather than some sort of white-collar crime? You can’t exactly send a company to prison. Instead, this appears to simply open the door to more liability for PG&E in the various lawsuits they are facing. California Governor Gavin Newsom has been at war with PG&E for a while now, vowing to “hold them accountable” for the fires “bring them to justice,” despite having accepted hefty campaign contributions from them in the past.
In an odd twist, this isn’t even the first time that PG&E has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The first time came in 2016 after a 2010 explosion involving one of their natural gas lines in San Bruno, California resulted in the death of multiple people.
PG&E was already in bankruptcy protection, but Newsom has been engaging in what he himself described as “unprecedented intervention” in the bankruptcy process. He’s been trying to steer the company out of bankruptcy so their books can be opened and their money funneled into a fund that’s been set up for wildfire victims. I would definitely not want to be one of PG&E’s investors about now since the “deal” also apparently includes provisions to make no payments to investors for at least three years.
As I’ve written here in the past, while the energy company should definitely be responsible for performing required maintenance on their own equipment, this entire saga still sounds fishy. If high winds knock a tree down onto the powerlines or lead to some sparking that causes a fire, that used to be considered an Act of God. And while PG&E should keep tree branches clear of their power lines, surely the state holds an even larger degree of responsibility for not clearing decades of dead brush out the dry areas, either through controlled burns or hefty levels of manpower. But Newsom and the rest of the California Democrats didn’t want to see any fingers pointed in their direction, so PG&E had to be made to take the fall.
Assuming California manages to sue PG&E out of existence and empty their coffers completely, who in their right mind would sign up to take over the contracts and supply a huge part of the state with power? Perhaps they should just tell Newsom to have the state take over the utility and see if they can do a better job of it.