Felony Manslaughter of 84 People, But No Jail Time for PG&E’s Leaders.

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Almost two years after the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty Tuesday to 84 counts of felony manslaughter caused by the utility company’s negligence. The dramatic plea was delivered before a judge in a mostly empty Butte County courtroom.

Watching on YouTube were the families of the victims, who had long waited to hear PG&E take responsibility for the deaths.  An investigation revealed that a worn hook holding a high voltage power line failed during high winds sparking the blaze that swept through the town of Paradise on November 8th of 2018.  It remains the most costly and deadly wildfire in California history.

In entering the pleas of involuntary manslaughter, PG&E admitted to causing the deaths of 84 victims of the Camp Fire. The utility also pleaded guilty to illegally starting a fire, both felonies.  However, despite the dramatic courtroom scene, many families of the victims say PG&E will face what amounts to only a slap on the wrist.

The judge in the case is expected to impose a $3.5 million dollar fine on the utility, and require no jail time for any of it’s managers.  One reason is that California law limits how large a fine can be imposed in manslaughter convictions.

In the meantime, PG&E is expected to emerge out of bankruptcy court soon with a judge-approved plan to pay the victims of its wildfires $13.5 billion.  About half of that will be in the form of stock, which means about 70 thousand victims will own just under a quarter of the company when it emerges from bankruptcy.

California Governor Gavin Newsom and the mayors of many cities in PG&E’s service area talked of breaking up the utility for a time last year, but the governor ended up favoring a plan that would leave PG&E an investor owned utility.  However the agreement stipulated that the state could take over the utility if it failed to live up to the terms of its bankruptcy plan.

When it emerges from bankruptcy proceedings, expected within the coming weeks, the utility will be eligible to participate in a $20 billion dollar fund to cover the cost of future wildfires.  The fund, approved by California lawmakers last year, is being financed by PG&E, two other large state utilities, and California ratepayers.

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