County sues SDG&E, Cox for wildfire damages

County sues SDG&E, Cox for wildfire damages

3 December 2008

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USA — San Diego County has joined the stream of plaintiffs suing San Diego Gas & Electric and Cox Communications for damages caused by the Witch, Rice and Guejito wildfires in 2007.
The suit was filed in San Diego Superior Court. It didn’t state the damages because those are still being assessed.

“The state has an easier way to tally the costs of the fire,” said Deborah McCarthy, chief deputy county counsel. “They simply look at firefighting expenses. We’re still doing pre-trial research.”
McCarthy said damages will include loss of property taxes from the destruction of homes as well as the value of loss of wildlife habitat. The costs for debris removal and the replacement value of public buildings will also be factored in.

State agencies have reported that the fires started when sparks from arcing SDG&E power lines ignited brush.

One county-owned building in Ramona went up in flames, according to a spokeswoman for Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Jennifer Stone. It was a transportation building, she said.
McCarthy said the impact on wildlife is still being researched, so they don’t know the extent of damage to endangered species and their habitat.

A spokewoman for SDG&E, Stephanie Donovan, told the Sentinel that the utility company had not yet received a copy of the complaint from the county, but that the lawsuit “is not a surprise.”
“Several lawsuits already have been filed, including one by the State Attorney General on behalf of Cal Fire — to recover the costs of fighting the fires,” she said. “However, SDG&E believes there’s a big difference between a power line serving as an “ignition source” for a wildfire driven by strong winds, and company responsibility and liability.”  

The legal process could take years. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed. The judge has ordered the 50 or so lawyers representing thousands of clients to organize the cases into seven “master complaints.” The county’s suits will be merged with those.

Two of the master complaints involve government agencies.  The others deal with insurance companies and private property owners.

Investigative agencies have found the three fires started by arcing of power lines, and that a loose support cable for a fiber optic line owned by Cox Communications was to blame, in part, for the Guejito fire.

Cox argues that the cable loosened after SDG&E’s power line struck it.

“This is a very complicated litigation,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been in meetings with all parties involved, including all the other attorneys, prior to filing this suit.”

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