On Tuesday morning (June 16) at Butte County Superior Court, more than 19 months after the Camp Fire, PG&E pleaded guilty to causing the mega blaze as well as 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter linked to the utility company’s faulty infrastructure.
After PG&E CEO Bill Johnson waived the company’s rights to a trial, pleading guilty to unlawfully causing the fire—thereby injuring a firefighter, causing great bodily injury to more than one victim, and causing multiple structures to burn—Judge Michael R. Deems went over the 84 additional felony counts. He methodically read the names of each victim alphabetically—Joyce Acheson, Herbert Alderman, Teresa Ammons, and so on—along with the accompanying charge. (Though 85 people perished as a result of the fire that started on Nov. 8, 2018, one died of suicide.)
After more than 25 minutes, Deems read the final count: “On behalf of PG&E, how do you plea to violation of penal code section 192(b)—involuntary manslaughter as a felony—concerning the death of David Young as alleged in count 85 of the indictment?”
As he had done during each of the previous counts, Johnson, standing and facing a screen showing photos of the victims, spoke the same refrain: “Guilty, your honor.” The proceedings were livestreamed.
Reading a statement following agreement from PG&E attorney Brad Brian and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey that there was a factual basis to support the guilty pleas, Johnson said he was there on behalf of PG&E’s 23,000 employees to take responsibility for the Camp Fire.
“Our equipment started that fire, destroyed the towns of Paradise, Concow, severely burned Magalia, other parts of Butte County, took the lives of 85 people, thousands of people lost their homes and businesses, forced to evacuate under horrific circumstances,” he said. “I wish there was some way to take back what happened or to take away the impact, the pain that these people have suffered, but I know that can’t be done.”
Johnson went on to say that the company had since worked with residents and public officials to help with recovery and rebuilding in the region. He noted that compensation for victims is forthcoming, pointing to June 30 as the day the company’s reorganization should be approved in bankruptcy court.
He said the lessons learned from the Camp fire are being taken seriously, pointing to what he called “comprehensive changes” that include “hardening” PG&E’s infrastructure “to help make sure that the tragedy that occurred here never occurs again.”
“I apologize—and I apologize personally—for the pain that was caused here,” Johnson said. “We can’t replace all that the fire destroyed but we do hope that pleading guilty, by accepting accountability, by compensating the victims, supporting rebuilding and making significant lasting changes to the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward.”
In response, Ramsey briefly noted that Johnson had looked at the photos of the victims as the judge read each count.
“If we are to listen to PG&E’s words, this is an object lesson.” Ramsey said. “Tomorrow we will hear even more of the pain—that Mr. Johnson has just indicated—as the victims’ next of kin come before this court and give their victim impact statements just prior to the court’s sentencing.”
Deems accepted the plea and found PG&E to be guilty. The company’s counsel asked that it be sentenced immediately following victim impact statements that are to be read at 9 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday) when the court reconvenes. The proceedings will again be livestreamed.