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PG&E pleads guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in fire that devastated Paradise, California

One by one, the names of the 84 victims killed in California's devastating Camp Fire were read aloud in Butte County Superior Court on Tuesday. With each, an attorney representing Pacific Gas & Electric answered with a guilty plea.

Under a plea bargain, the nation's largest publicly held utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in the deadly 2018 wildfire that devastated the town of Paradise, CBS SF Bay Area reports. 

There was little emotion. Because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place requirements, the attorneys all wore masks and there were no relatives allowed inside the proceeding. 

According to the deal, PG&E will pay the maximum fine of $10,000 for each life lost in the blaze.   

The company was also set to plead guilty to an additional count of illegally causing a fire that resulted in great bodily injury.

The utility will be sentenced later in the week after two or three days of emotional victim impact testimony by family members of people who died in the fire. 

California Town Of Paradise Devastated By The Camp Fire Continues Search And Recovery Efforts
Rescue workers search for human remains at a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 14, 2018 in Paradise, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Under a plea agreement announced in March by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and PG&E, the utility will pay the maximum possible penalty of about $4 million. Ramsey said the penalty will include the maximum fine of $10,000 for each involuntary manslaughter count; $50,000 on the fire count; and court fees allowed by law, for a total amount calculated at $3,486,950. In addition, PG&E will pay Ramsey's office $500,000 for the cost of investigation.

The Camp Fire began on November 8, 2018, when a suspension hook known as a C-hook on a nearly 100-year-old transmission tower in the Sierra foothills in eastern Butte County broke, causing a power line to fall against the metal tower and sending sparks to dry grass below. 

The wildfire quickly swept southwest through Butte County in dry and windy conditions, killing 84 people and burning 153,336 acres. Nearly the entire town of Paradise was destroyed.

In May 2019, Cal Fire announced it had determined the fire was caused by PG&E electrical transmission lines in the area of Pulga in eastern Butte County. But the agency did not give details, because it forwarded its investigative report to District Attorney Ramsey for the criminal probe.

PG&E has acknowledged that the broken C-hook caused the fire. "PG&E acknowledges that the failure of a component on a nearly 100-year-old PG&E transmission tower caused the Camp Fire," the utility's lawyers wrote in a filing in federal court in San Francisco last July.

"The component that failed was a steel suspension hook known as a C-hook," they wrote.

The filing was submitted to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E's probation in a criminal pipeline safety case stemming from the fatal explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline in San Bruno in 2010.

PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenen said the company had no comment Monday on the planned guilty plea, but said he expected to have a statement on Tuesday.

In announcing the plea agreement in March, PG&E Corp. Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said the utility accepts responsibility, and said, "All of us at PG&E deeply regret this tragedy and the company's role in it."

Ramsey said in March that the crime of involuntary manslaughter by a corporation must be based on proof of criminal negligence in failing to perform a legal duty to those who died.

Separately, PG&E is awaiting a federal bankruptcy court ruling on ]whether its financial reorganization plan for exiting Chapter 11 bankruptcy will be confirmed. The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, allowing a temporary freeze on its debts, in January 2019, citing billions of dollars in liability for the Camp Fire and 2017 fires in the North Bay.

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