California prosecutors: PG&E could face manslaughter charges — in theory – San Francisco Chronicle
Manslaughter and murder are among the crimes Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could have committed under California law if its reckless operation of power lines is found to have sparked any recent deadly wildfire, according to the state’s top prosecutor.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and his deputies described to a federal judge Friday a range of possible consequences PG&E could face at the state level, depending on the utility’s “mental state,” if it is deemed responsible for wildfires that have ravaged the state.
The potential crimes vary widely, from minor offenses related to vegetation and power lines to felonies or misdemeanors about causing fires or even implied-malice murder and involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors said.
Becerra’s office laid out the possibilities in a brief to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is considering how the wildfires could affect PG&E’s probation from a criminal case born out of the aftermath to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.
Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation from the pipeline case, and his questioning comes amid heavy scrutiny over whether PG&E sparked the recent Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
He invited state prosecutors to weigh in after asking PG&E, the U.S. attorney’s office and the utility’s federal monitor about how wildfires could affect the probation terms if the utility is found responsible.
Alsup set a Monday deadline. As of early Friday evening, Becerra had filed the only response.
PG&E, which will later file its own response to Alsup’s questions, had no direct comment on the substance of Becerra’s brief.
“PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety. Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild,” spokesman John Kaufman said in an email. “Throughout our service area, we are committed to doing everything we can to help further reduce the risk of wildfire.”
Becerra’s brief stressed it had not come to any conclusion about PG&E’s responsibility for recent disasters. Rather, prosecutors examined a hypothetical question posed by Alsup, who had asked about “the extent to which, if at all, the reckless operation or maintenance of PG&E power lines would constitute a crime under California law” if it sparked a wildfire.
The answer would depend on the utility’s state of mind, according to Becerra’s brief.
“These mental states resemble a sliding scale,” prosecutors said in the brief. “As the mental state·becomes more culpable, the applicable offense becomes more serious.”
Under state law, implied-malice murder requires the circumstances to show an “abandoned and malignant heart” from the party responsible for the death, the brief said. The party must do something they know is life-threatening with “conscious disregard for life,” prosecutors wrote, quoting a 2009 court decision.
Involuntary manslaughter, meanwhile, would require showing that PG&E could have reasonably foreseen death as a natural and even likely consequence of its actions, according to the brief.
Prosecutors noted that, unlike in California, federal involuntary manslaughter law requires more conditions be present, including an intentional choice to act without regard for the consequences.
PG&E’s exposure to crimes related to vegetation maintenance and starting wildfires would similarly depend on its degree of negligence, according to the brief.
Alsup asked Becerra’s office about only one part of the line of inquiry he opened late last month, when he posed a series of wildfire-related questions to the other parties, including PG&E.
In his original Nov. 27 filing, Alsup demanded an “accurate and complete statement” of any role PG&E played in the cause and reporting of the Camp Fire, which killed at least 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings.
He also inquired about PG&E’s connection to all other California wildfires since it was sentenced in the gas pipeline case in early 2017.
Alsup further asked if any “inaccurate, slow, or failed reporting of information about any wildfire by PG&E” would violate the terms of its sentence in the pipeline case.
And he wanted to know exactly how the monitor had moved to oversee and improve PG&E’s safety measures and reporting practices “with respect to power lines and wildfires.”