The family of a man who suffered fatal injuries while trimming a tree has been given the green light to sue Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The California Court of Appeals ruled that the case can move forward after a district court judge ruled earlier that the company had met all required standards as set out by the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC).
Back in September 2007, Carlos Olvera had been hired to clear branches from a redwood tree. Unknown to Olvera, a high-power electric line lay hidden among the branches. After the man inadvertently made contact with the 12,000-volt line, the current struck the man, resulting in his death.
The family reached a settlement with the homeowner and the man’s employer; however, PG&E and the contracting company, the Davey Tree Expert Co., argued successfully in the lower court that they could not be sued because the distance between the line and the foliage complied with the PUC’s standard’s for distance. The district court agreed with the companies’ contention and allowed the lawsuit to be dismissed.
This month, the First District Court of Appeals out of San Francisco reinstated the lawsuit in a 3-0 ruling. In the court’s opinion, the justices ruled that a court can decide whether a sufficient amount of distance had been maintained between branches and a power line.
The court based its reasoning on the fact that the PUC had previously told utilities that more foliage may need to be cleared in order to maintain adequate safety. Therefore the court may make a judgment on whether reasonable clearance decisions had been made by the companies.
PG&E has been involved in other issues concerning safety recently. Two days after the appeal court’s ruling, a home in Carmel blew up in a natural gas explosion. Natural gas workers were apparently confused over a PG&E gas line map while attempting to hook up different lines. The blast completely destroyed the one-bedroom home. Fortunately, nobody was home and the crew suffered no injuries.
Violations of record-keeping by PG&E will make up a large part of the case currently before the PUC. Back in 2010, a spectacular natural gas explosion ripped through a San Bruno neighborhood, leveling 38 homes and killing eight people.
According to a report from radio station KPCC, PG&E pledged to fix inaccurate records after the San Bruno catastrophe. It is alleged that inaccurate records led to the 2010 explosion. Critics contend that PG&E didn’t run proper tests that would have exposed the problem.
PG&E could be fined up to $2.5 billion by the PUC.