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Angry Wildfire Victims File Lawsuits Against PG&E

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – A dozen plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit against PG&E in San Francisco on Friday, blaming the utility in the destructive Wine Country wildfires.

The filing is just the latest in what's expected to be a slew of legal action following the fires in the North Bay.

"It was very scary, so we had to leave it. When we went back, everything was gone," said fire victim Nemesio Ruiz outside the San Francisco Superior Court courthouse.

He is one of the plaintiffs in the latest suit against PG&E for gross negligence, accusing the company of failing to maintain its equipment, having downed lines spark and ignite vegetation and trees which started the fire that ultimately destroyed more than 5,700 buildings and killing 43 people.

Ruiz described the frightening early morning flight from his home.

"I usually get up at 2 a.m.," said Ruiz. "When I woke up I could smell the smoke and see the fire coming down over the hill."

At first, he tried to use a garden hose to protect his home, but there was no water. So he, his wife and two teenaged children fled in the nick of time, leaving with only their car.

"It was pretty close. There was fire all around us when we left," said Ruiz.

Lawyer Mary Alexander said it was obvious that recent weather would create lots of fuel for fires.

"We've had years of drought, so there's lots of dry brush," said Alexander. "And the 2016-2017 winter we had lots of rain, so there was the vegetation had grown and they did not trim, cut back or protect."

Alexander said the suit was filed against PG&E "for their failure to protect the public, putting profits before safety, profits before people."

Alexander said she expected more lawsuits to be filed and that the state Judicial Council would assign all the cases to a single judge to promote judicial efficiency.

"There were 3,000 homes that burned," explained Alexander. "So I do anticipate that more people will come forward and hold PG&E accountable for what's happened to them and all they lost and the emotional toll this has taken."

She is no stranger to court battles with PG&E. She sued them on behalf of victims of the San Bruno explosion.

"This is evidence that the corporate culture has not changed since San Bruno," said Alexander. "That they've not taken it seriously, even though it's like $1.6 billion that they've been fined since then."

She said she believes the cases should be handled in San Francisco Superior Court because the city is the headquarters of PG&E Co. and its parent company PG&E Corp.

This is the eleventh lawsuit filed against PG&E, representing more than 100 victims so far.

The state's Public Utilities Commission has launched an investigation into whether PG&E's maintenance of its equipment in Sonoma and Napa counties may have played a role in these deadly fires. Among the factors being considered is whether it adequately cut back trees from power lines to reduce the known risk of fire.

The first lawsuit came in mid-October from one of hundreds of families who lost their homes in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park subdivision on October 8th.

"We raised our children there and now were back to a plot on a map," said fire victim Jennifer Harvell.

Another lawsuit was filed in the same court late Wednesday by a Santa Rosa husband and wife who were severely burned as they ran through the flames on foot and their nightclothes caught on fire.

Attorney Bill Robins said he believes the lawsuit by Ulla and Lars Tandrup of Santa Rosa is the first to have been filed on behalf of burn victims.

PG&E has so far refused to comment on the pending lawsuits. In part of a statement released Thursday, a spokesperson said, "We are aware that lawsuits have been filed. Beyond that, we're going to be focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover."

The company's ultimate defense?

"The defense is going to be 'act of God.' The defense is going to be this was a storm we are not responsible for the storm," said Hastings School of Law Professor David Levine.

Alexander maintained the company could have taken preventive measures, like shutting power off when they knew a storm was coming.

Cal Fire is still investigating the official cause of the fires. The lawsuits filed Thursday seek unspecified damages.

TM and © Copyright 2017 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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