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Does Liability Play a Role in Wildfire Litigation?

Posted on 10/24/23 Personal Injury

Wildfires are a constant risk for residents of California. Over the last five years, wildfires destroyed approximately 1,555,292 acres of land in the state, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. If you sustained property damage or bodily injuries as a result of a wildfire, learn about potential liability and litigation options by consulting with an attorney.

Tracing the Cause of a Wildfire

After a wildfire, California’s fire protection agency will launch an investigation to determine its cause. They will send investigators to the location where the wildfire was first initiated to search for signs of negligence. Negligence is the failure to exercise due care or caution. If a person or company was negligent and this caused the wildfire, the negligent party can be held legally responsible (liable).

Common causes of California wildfires include:

  • Human activity
  • Unattended campfires
  • Fireworks
  • Vehicles in poor condition
  • The misuse of equipment
  • Arson
  • Utility company negligence
  • Downed powerlines
  • Lightning and dry weather

Liability often plays a role in California wildfire litigation, as one or multiple parties may be found responsible for starting the fire. A reckless individual may be liable for ignoring municipal fire safety regulations and starting a wildfire, for example. In many cases, however, wildfire liability goes to a utility or power company for acts of negligence that contributed to the blaze.

Energy Providers and California Wildfires

Over the last few decades, the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California have been caused by energy provider negligence. The deadliest fire in the state’s history, the Camp Fire, was ignited by a faulty electric transmission line owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). This fire took 85 lives. It is also the number one most destructive California wildfire, with 153,336 acres and 18,804 structures destroyed. 

Several other wildfires on the state’s Most Deadly list were also caused by faulty equipment owned by PG&E and other utility companies. In 2019, a $13.5 billion settlement was collected against PG&E for more than 5,500 plaintiffs for wildfires caused by the utility company’s equipment between 2015 and 2018. If an investigation of a destructive wildfire finds dangerous, defective or outdated power equipment to be the cause, the power company can be held liable.

Insurance Claims vs. Wildfire Lawsuits in California

Many individuals in California who sustain property damage due to wildfires are protected by their homeowners insurance policies. Filing an insurance claim can often lead to financial benefits being awarded to the policyholder for property repairs, rebuilds, the replacement of personal belongings and additional living expenses. These benefits are made available without requiring proof of someone else’s negligence.

Insurance claims for wildfires should be filed promptly after the event, as most insurance providers have tight deadlines for reporting losses. The claimant should document property damage in detail to provide proof of his or her losses to the insurance provider. If the insurance company denies liability or refuses to offer a fair settlement after investigating the wildfire claim, the victim may need to contact an attorney for assistance with the insurance claims process. 

An insurance claim may not be the only or best source of financial compensation for a wildfire victim. In a case that involves human or energy company negligence, holding the at-fault party liable could result in greater coverage than an insurance settlement alone. Find out if you have grounds to bring a lawsuit against one or more liable parties after a wildfire in California during a free case consultation at Bridgford, Gleason & Artinian. Our Orange County personal injury lawyers stand ready to help. 

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