Judge denies class action lawsuits in wildfires

A judge on June 25 rejected class action status for the 70 lawsuits so far filed against San Diego Gas & Electric in which the utility is blamed for causing the wildfires in October 2007. The judge’s ruling will likely be appealed to a higher court, attorneys said.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss denied the class action request before 83 attorneys, law clerks and paralegals who attended the hearing in a crowded courtroom. The lawyers represent approximately 1,000 people who were claiming losses from destroyed homes to those who evacuated and had to spend nights in hotels.

In a written ruling, Strauss stated he denied the motion “on the grounds there is insufficient commonality among class members and a class action is an inferior method with which to proceed.” He wrote that “a class action is not manageable.”

Strauss said there have been more than 20,000 claims to insurance companies as a result of the wildfires and that shows “plaintiffs who have taken a significant and active role in seeking compensation.”

“It is difficult to assume any single damage calculation would apply uniformly,” the judge wrote.

“By not limiting the damages to living expenses, the scope of damages defeats commonality by including extra cell phone minutes, diapers, extra meals, meals bought for others, air filters for cars, car rentals, car washes and dog food,” the judge continued in his ruling.  “...When the determination of each class members’ damage is increasingly diverse, it defies common questions of laws and fact.”

The judge also said each plaintiff has a different type of loss and degree of damages, with some people seeking damages for expenses incurred as a result of the massive evacuation but that had little or no damages to their homes.

“Not every evacuation order was associated with a single specific fire. For example, Oct. 21, 2007, at 22:10, there is a mandatory evacuation of Ramona, but does not identify the fire with which the evacuation is associated.”

The lawsuits allege losses caused by the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires. The suits allege that SDG&E power lines struck vegetation during severe Santa Ana winds. There were more than 1,300 homes burned in Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Scripps Ranch, Fallbrook, El Cajon, and other areas, as well as two deaths.

The written ruling says the lawyers were also using a statistical analysis of a telephone survey to determine class action status and damages.

“The moving parties have offered no suggestions as to how to manage and require participation from thousands of inactive class members. Thus, plaintiffs have failed to show (that) a class action is superior to the current case management,” concluded Strauss.

   
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