Who Is Liable for Wildfire Damage in California?

Posted on September 22, 2021

If a recent California wildfire damaged your home or property, you may be entitled to financial compensation through the civil justice system. If an investigation shows that one or more parties are responsible for causing the fire, such as a careless electric company or individual, that party may be financially responsible (liable) for your property repairs or replacement. 

Who Has a Responsibility To Prevent Wildfires?

Everyone has an ethical duty to avoid actions that pose a foreseeable risk of wildfires. These actions include abandoning a campfire, using matches and lighters in no-fire zones, tossing out lit cigarettes, and using fireworks in restricted areas. Under California law, certain citizens have additional legal responsibilities. California Government Code Section 51182 requires everyone who lives in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones to maintain at least 100 feet of defensible space surrounding a structure. This is a space that is cleared of flammable vegetation.

In addition, Assembly Bill 21 proposes a civil penalty of up to $100,000 against anyone who owns or controls equipment that transmits electrical currents and fails to clear trees and vegetation surrounding electrical poles and powerlines. Utility companies would also receive a $1,000 fine per acre burned in fires started by their equipment. This bill is an attempt to hold utility companies, such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), responsible for failing to meet the wildfire safety standards. 

How Is Liability Determined?

Liability for a wildfire is determined using a comprehensive investigation of how the fire started. If one or more parties reasonably could have prevented the fire, such as by taking steps to reduce the risk of a wildfire, that party may bear legal and financial responsibility for the fire and related losses. Many of California’s annual wildfires trace back to human error. These errors include:

  • An electric company failing to properly install, inspect and maintain its powerlines and electrical equipment.
  • A property owner failing to clear an area around a home of flammable vegetation.
  • Campers failing to practice appropriate campfire safety in wooded areas.
  • Residents and businesses ignoring fire safety hazards and rules.
  • Drivers failing to maintain their vehicles to prevent car fires. 
  • Intentional crimes, such as arson.

If a careless or reckless party causes a wildfire in California, they can be held liable for related wildfire damage. Injured victims may be able to recover financial compensation for serious losses, including property damage, physical injuries and deaths. Proving liability and recovering financial compensation for wildfire-related losses, however, requires evidence that meets the burden of proof.

What Is the Burden of Proof?

The burden of proof is the amount of evidence that is required to prove a case. In civil law, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence, or enough evidence to demonstrate that the defendant is more likely to be responsible for the damages in question than not. Evidence in a wildfire case could include expert opinions, eyewitness statements, photographs and videos, and accident reports. The specific elements that must be proven to win a case change depending on the type of lawsuit. 

If you base your claim on the legal grounds of negligence, you will need evidence establishing that the defendant had a duty to exercise reasonable care, acted unreasonably and caused the wildfire. If you have a claim based on inverse condemnation, however, the strict liability law will apply instead. Under this law, a utility company or government agency can be liable for a wildfire even in the absence of fault if they start a fire on private property.

How Can a Wildfire Damage Attorney Help?

The laws surrounding California wildfire claims are complicated. Protect yourself by hiring a California wildfire attorney to represent you. An attorney has the knowledge and experience to go up against an insurance company, a major corporation such as PG&E, a government agency or another party in pursuit of compensation for a dangerous or deadly wildfire. To learn more about your case, contact an experienced attorney at Panish, Shea & Boyle today. We offer free initial consultations.

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If you have a legal matter you would like to discuss with an attorney from our firm, please call us at (310) 477-1700 or complete and submit the e-mail form below, and we will get back to you.

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