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Criminal charges dropped against PG&E over fatal California wildfire

The utility company has instead reached a $50 million settlement with Shasta County prosecutors over the fire that killed four people.
Criminal charges dropped against PG&E over fatal California wildfire
Posted at 2:51 PM, Jun 01, 2023

A California judge has dismissed all criminal charges against Pacific Gas & Electric over a deadly 2020 wildfire that was linked to the utility company's equipment. PG&E will instead pay $50 million as part of a settlement with the Shasta County District Attorney's Office.

The wind-fueled Zogg fire charred more than 55,000 acres in two counties, destroyed hundreds of homes and left four people dead. In 2021, state investigators determined the blaze was started after a tree fell onto a PG&E power line even though it had been marked to be cut down two years earlier. 

Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett determined that PG&E was responsible for the disaster and filed criminal charges in 2021. The company was charged with manslaughter — for the four deaths from the fire — among a slew of other felony charges.

A judge at the time determined that prosecutors had enough evidence against PG&E to proceed to trial. However, Shasta Superior Court Judge Daniel E. Flynn issued a written tentative ruling in April overturning the previous judge's decision and ultimately preventing the DA's office from taking PG&E to trial.

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Judge Flynn dismissed all criminal charges Wednesday, saying prosecutors did not provide enough evidence to prove that PG&E could be held criminally liable. 

The company said in a statement that it instead reached a settlement with Shasta County to make a $45 million contribution to numerous organizations dedicated to rebuilding and assisting local communities affected by the Zogg fire. PG&E also agreed to pay $5 million in civil penalties to the county. 

"The agreement reflects our continuing commitment to making it right and making it safe," said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe. "We stand behind our thousands of trained and experienced coworkers and contractors working every day to keep Californians safe. We feel strongly that those good-faith judgments are not criminal."

While District Attorney Bridgett didn't agree with the court's judgment, she said the settlement will provide some protections for the Shasta County community moving forward.

"This resolution does not make me happy," Bridgett said in a statement. "Taking PG&E to trial and holding them criminally responsible was always our goal — but the tentative ruling changed our position and I am unwilling to gamble with the safety of Shasta County. I have a responsibility to the community and needed to secure what I can for all the citizens to prevent future wildfires, prevent future deaths and devastation, and to be as prepared as our county can be if another one occurs."

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