Attorney Joe Earley and his wife, Ashley, discovered the perfect location for their family dream home in 1999: an old apple orchard on Lovely Lane in Paradise. Earley developed an affection for Paradise as a college student, after his parents moved to the Ridge from San Diego in the ’80s. It’s where he launched his practice, where Ashley and he raised their daughter, Elisabeth, now 21, and son, Joey, now 19.
On Monday (Dec. 3), in front of an audience of more than 200 Camp Fire survivors at Chico’s Elks Lodge, Earley projected an image of his stark white office on the Skyway ablaze against a black sky. He showed a photo of the ashes of his family’s home, of his parents’ home.
There was a collective groan after each image of destruction was displayed. One man called out, “My home looked like that, too.” Another uttered simply, “Sorry.”
Earley wasn’t seeking pity, but solidarity. He has joined three law firms launching a mass civil lawsuit against PG&E, as well as one powerful ally: environmental activist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, famous for successfully waging battles against PG&E over the past 20 years.
Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Earley, Brockovich and their cohorts with three law offices around the country believe the utility giant is responsible for it and the subsequent deaths of at least 85 people.
“When you tell me those three words—‘We lost everything’—I get that. … I know that loss. I know it deep,” Earley told the crowd. “I’m going to do everything I can do to push this thing through to the end, get maximum recovery, make sure they pay what they have to pay and you all get treated with respect in the meanwhile.”
That evening, the legal team answered questions and explained their plans to operate as a network, representing Ridge residents individually via a mass tort. They’ve already established a Chico office on California Park Drive. They’ll operate under a contingency agreement, Earley said: If the lawyers succeed, they’ll take 33 percent of the recovery. If they fail, nobody will be charged.
The firms are among the dozens homing in on Butte County in the wake of the catastrophic firestorm, amid reports that the utility reported an outage to the California Public Utilities Commission at a high-voltage power line in Pulga near the origin of the fire. Jennifer Robison, a spokeswoman with PG&E, provided this statement from the company: “The cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation. PG&E is fully cooperating with any and all investigations.”
On its website, PG&E has stated, “Our hearts are with the communities impacted by the Camp Fire. PG&E continues to focus on assessing infrastructure, safely restoring power where possible, and helping our customers recover and rebuild.”
Brockovich has a long history of battling the energy giant.
In 1992, the same year Earley opened his practice in Paradise, she uncovered documents that, four years later, led to a $333 million settlement that found PG&E culpable for water pollution in the Southern California town of Hinkley. That story was the subject of the movie bearing Brockovich’s name, starring Julia Roberts.
Monday night in Chico, she didn’t mince words.
“If I get upset, it’s because I am very pissed,” she said. “This is a company that has continually, repetitive[ly] lied, dodged, concealed and utilized their money for their gain. And not building out a safe structure for this utility is inexcusable, it’s despicable, and it’ll take you to rise up and hold them accountable.”
Brockovich shared that she escaped Southern California’s Woosley Fire, returning to just a few singed trees and her home intact. But even that experience has left her uneasy. “I cannot imagine what you have all been through. And for every person in here, I am deeply sorry.”
She asked for a show of hands for those who had lost their home to the fires, and hundreds of arms shot into the air.
“Does it matter if you’ve lost it, if you lost your community?” one woman spoke out in the silence that followed, with several others chiming in. “It’s a ghost town,” the woman continued, “You’re displaced. You can’t go back.”
Between their comments, the pain in the room was palpable. Some attendees sniffled and wiped at their eyes.
“You’re exactly right, you have lost everything,” Brockovich replied, adding that rebuilding is possible but will take time.
Brockovich added that she is frustrated with the state, which she believes has given PG&E “a pass” from one disaster to another. “Legislation has to change and we’ve got to fight like sons of bitches to change that policy to be rest assured that Pacific Gas & Electric never gets another chance again in the state of California to burn down another town, ever.”
In 2010, a pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people, prompting the CPUC to investigate PG&E’s safety culture. Last week, based on its findings, the regulatory agency ordered the utility to improve several procedures and protocols.
“Evidence shows that, although there are a few bright spots, PG&E appears not to have a clear vision for safety programs and instead pursues many programs without thought to how they fit together…” CPUC President Michael Picker said in a press release.
Speaking to the CN&R after the meeting, Brockovich said that ideally PG&E will not be allowed to declare bankruptcy and avoid paying for the damages it has caused, and it will no longer be allowed to operate a monopoly.
“Maybe if they had some competition they’d behave better,” she said. “This can’t continue to happen. Just one utility providing for [tens of millions of] people, and they have the freedom to come blow ’em up and burn ’em down.
“That’s why I said I’m frustrated with the state. I think they have something to answer for here, too. … [California] better not forget what just happened here in Paradise.”