Attorneys at Panish | Shea | Boyle | Ravipudi LLP, Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP, Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger and Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora, LLP have filed a lawsuit against Southern California Edison (SCE) and Edison International on behalf of Jennie Waterhouse Prieto and Carole Bretonne, Malibu residents and property owners who lost their homes and belongings in the Woolsey Fire.
On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire ignited beneath SCE power lines in Simi Valley which went on to burn nearly 97,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, consumed 1,643 homes and structures and resulted in three fatalities. The newly filed lawsuit against the utility exposes serious problems with the effectiveness of SCE’s risk management practices and highlights the utility’s willful mismanagement of its electrical facilities during well-known and anticipated fire conditions in Southern California.
As alleged in the complaint, in approximately 2013, SCE implemented a “Run to Failure” (RTF) maintenance model, whereby the utility relied entirely on reactive maintenance as its equipment failed rather than requiring and enforcing preventative maintenance for its electrical facilities. This practice by SCE allowed more profits for its shareholders by spending less money on necessary maintenance and infrastructure improvements. SCE’s maintenance model increased the risk of wildfires and led to the ignition of both the 2017 Thomas Fire and the 2018 Woolsey Fire.
“SCE’s Run to Failure maintenance is a truly despicable practice that was used without regard to its very foreseeable and tragic consequences,” said Brian Panish. “It is particularly disturbing that this practice continued after the massive destruction and death caused by the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides less than a year ago.”
In 2015, SCE identified a power pole as needing to be replaced at Koenigstein Road, but SCE chose not to replace it. On December 4, 2017, the dilapidated pole failed during extreme fire conditions, causing an explosion and a shower of sparks that ignited one of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history. The Thomas Fire burned so fiercely, it denuded and transformed the soil into a water-repellant surface. Less than a month later, and before the Thomas Fire was fully extinguished, rainfall over the hills above Montecito resulted in massive debris flows that claimed the lives of 22 men, women and children. In keeping with its RTF protocol, SCE replaced the pole at Koenigstein Road immediately after the Thomas Fire. To add insult to injury, the utility giant spent millions of dollars on media advertising that same year, diverting funds that should have been used for infrastructure and vegetation management improvements.
“Imagine a major airline company had a problem with the engine on one of its jets but instead of repairing it, the plane remained in operation until it failed. The devastation and loss of life would be catastrophic. That is precisely what we have here,” said Rahul Ravipudi. “SCE’s decision to rely on this method of failure maintenance was purposeful and done in order to ensure that the company’s profits grew at the expense of public safety.”
No lessons were learned by SCE despite the horrific consequences of “Run to Failure.” Less than a year later, the Woolsey Fire ignited beneath SCE power lines and residents in surrounding communities were forced to flee from their homes. In a December 6, 2018 letter to the California Public Utility Commission, SCE stated that during a Red Flag warning, “its Big Rock 16kV circuit signaled a problem. Upon inspection, a guy wire was discovered in proximity to a jumper at a lightweight tubular steel pole.” Cal Fire investigators confiscated SCE’s facilities from the scene, including multiple guy wires, the jumper, communication wires, and a pole top. “Equipment failures and overloaded, dilapidated utility poles are extraordinarily dangerous, but shamefully common, under SCE’s purposeful RTF system of maintenance.”
Despite repeated incidents of mass destruction and death, risk analyses, citations, fines, convictions, lawsuits, verdicts and settlements all revealing SCE’s failures to appropriately and safely maintain and operate its infrastructure, “SCE’s callous and despicable disregard for the safety of California communities is underscored by its diversion of necessary safety-related expenditures into funding corporate bonuses, boosting shareholder profits, and/or running advertising campaigns, while ignoring the serious and irreparable nature of the public safety threat posed by its aging infrastructure and ineffective vegetation management practices.” As a result, “the people of California have paid for corporate greed with the lives of their loved ones, their homes, and their most cherished belongings.”