The Ninth Circuit asked the Supreme Court whether a class action could proceed that alleges utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s negligence in maintaining its power grid led to emergency, wildfire-preventing blackouts that caused, among other things, “ ‘loss of food items in [class members’] refrigerators.’ ” (The action also alleges compensation is owed for “ ‘loss of habitability of their dwellings, . . . , expenses for alternative means of lighting and power, . . . loss of cell phone connectivity, dangerous dark conditions, lack of running water, and loss of productivity and business.’ ”) Today, in Gantner v. PG&E Corp., the Supreme Court says Public Utilities Code section 1759 precludes the lawsuit.
Horvitz & Levy represents PG&E in the Supreme Court.
The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Goodwin Liu holds that section 1759 bars the class action because “allowing suit here would interfere with the [California Public Utilities Commission’s] comprehensive regulatory and supervisory authority over [Public Safety Power Shutoffs].” It’s important that there’s no allegation of “negligence in the decision to shut off power or in PSPS implementation.” “PG&E cannot be liable for implementing PSPS events that, as far as the complaint alleges, fully complied with PUC guidelines,” the court concludes. The result might be different, the court says, in “[a] suit alleging that a utility implemented PSPS events in violation of PUC guidelines.”
The court assures, “ ‘section 1759 does not leave plaintiffs without a remedy’ for utility negligence. [Citation.] It simply means that the ‘remedy lies before the commission rather than in . . . court.’ ” But it also acknowledges that “the PUC does not and cannot award tort damages to customers affected by the negligence of utilities,” and it directs disagreements with that limitation to the Legislature.