California Personal Injury Law Case Notes

San Bruno Judge Refuses to Throw Out Victims' Claim for Punitive Damages

Today Judge Dylina denied PG&E’s request to throw out of court the victims’ claims for punitive damages.  Instead, he is leaving  the question of whether PG&E should pay punitive damages to the jury. 

PG&E argued that the punitive damages issue was getting in the way of settlement negotiations. PG&E says it has done nothing deserving of punishment.  (Of course, lawyers for the victims disagree.) Throw out of court the victims' claims for punitive damages now, PG&E argued, and the victims might well view PG&E’s settlement offers as being more attractive than they have to date.

The judge agreed that a ruling on the punitive damages issue might help the parties get more realistic in their settlement discussions. But instead of telling plaintiffs that he was throwing their claims out, he told PG&E that he was leaving them in. The judge ruled that it's up to the jury to decide whether PG&E's conduct -- in particular its failure to test and replace segment 180 -- shows that PG&E "consciously disregarded" the safety of the public.  If the jury decides that it does, then it would be justified in assessing punitive damages.

Let’s see if PG&E gets the message. 

Other news from the two-day hearing:

  • Yesterday the judge threw out PG&E's claim that the victims were somehow responsible for the fire.  He found that there simply was no evidence to support it. PG&E will not be allowed to blame the victims at trial.
  • The judge ruled that PG&E's installation of the faulty gas line constituted a “taking” of plaintiffs’ property. This ruling clears the way for at least certain plaintiffs to recover against PG&E for the diminution in the market value of their property that PG&E’s conduct caused.
  • PG&E has asked the court to “bifurcate” the issue of punitive damages.  That is, PG&E has asked that a trial first be held on the issue of how much money should be awarded to compensate the victims for their actual losses.  Then, once all the victims’ cases have been tried by that jury, a second jury be empaneled to decide the issue of punitive damages.  The judge set November 20 as the date to hear arguments on that request.  But the judge made it clear that he was unlikely to "bifurcate" the trial in this fashion, as he had already considered and rejected this idea at the outset of the case.

 

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