Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
December 31, 2019 is the deadline for submitting claims against PG&E for losses relating to the 2015 Butte Fire, 2017 North Bay Fires, and the 2018 Camp Fire. Not all of those affected by the fires have started the claims process. Many are holding back because of misinformation. This less-than-full participation rate could affect all fire victims, including those who file claims. If you are sitting on the fence about making a claim, please take a moment to read the following FAQs.
Q: PG&E filed bankruptcy -- doesn’t that mean they are broke?
Not at all. PG&E is far from broke. It has assets in excess of $75 Billion and is highly profitable. Investors are willing to put billions more into the company to settle fire claims and own a piece of the restructured utility. PG&E will be able to pay all or a substantial part of all fire-related claims, including those from the Tubbs Fire. PG&E did not file bankruptcy because it was insolvent. After the fires, PG&E was facing thousands of lawsuits. Managing that many trials would have been a nightmare. By filing bankruptcy, PG&E moved the cases to a different courtroom where claims could be resolved in a more uniform and efficient manner.
Q: My home survived. Do I still have a claim?
Yes, you do. If you ran out the door with virtually nothing, drove through smoke and flames, were shut out of your home for weeks only to return a burned-out wasteland, you have a claim for emotional distress. Chances are you had smoke damage, lost trees and landscaping, and property damage that was not covered fully by insurance. If you were a renter or lived in a mobile home, you lost personal property and were almost certainly underinsured. You have a claim.
Q: Won’t my insurance company take all my recovery?
No it won’t. In this state, you get paid for your uninsured losses before your insurance company recovers a dime. And, you are entitled to more than property losses. You can recover for emotional distress, lost trees and landscaping, and additional living expenses you pay after October 8, 2019. Your insurance company’s subrogation rights kick in after you have recovered those losses. The final bankruptcy plan may create one pool of funds for fire victims and another for insurance companies. Even under that structure, you will be entitled to a recovery that your insurer can’t touch.
Q: What will it cost me to file a claim?
Nothing up front - and you don’t necessarily have to hire an attorney (see below). Wildfire plaintiffs’ attorneys are working on a contingency fee basis. They are paid by receiving a percentage of your recovery. That percentage is negotiable. Don’t believe it if an attorney tells you their fee is “standard.” Several excellent, nationally recognized firms have reduced their fees to 20% to 25%. Some attorneys are still charging 33%, even 40%. High fees may be justified when attorneys are taking on a large risk. In this matter, attorneys are not taking any risk. Every one of their wildfire clients will get a payment from PG&E and so will the attorneys.
Q: Do I have to hire an attorney?
No, you don’t. For a small claim, it may not make sense to pay an attorney a percentage of your recovery. Or, if you are averse to hiring an attorney, or you have waited until the last minute and don’t have time to choose one, file a claim on your own. The Proof of Claim form is simple and takes about ten minutes. If you change your mind and want to hire an attorney later, you can do that.
Q: What if I don’t want to get into a lawsuit?
The PG&E case is no longer a lawsuit, except for a limited number of plaintiffs who are part of the upcoming Tubbs trial. Everyone who files a claim by the Bar Date will be considered a “creditor,” and what’s being decided is how much we will be paid.
Q: What if I signed onto a class action or other lawsuit? Can I still pursue that?
No, you can’t. All lawsuits against PG&E were “stayed” by the bankruptcy filing, except for the Tubbs trial (which will most likely settle). Once a bankruptcy plan has been put in place, all the lawsuits will disappear. Because PG&E filed bankruptcy, you must follow bankruptcy procedures, meaning you must file a Proof of Claim by the Bar Date or your claims may disappear.
Q: How long before we see any money?
Right now, it looks like mid to later 2020. As part of PG&E’s final bankruptcy plan, billions of dollars will be put into a trust to pay individuals fire victims who have submitted Proof of Claim forms by the Dec 31 Bar Date. That trust will be administered by a professional trust/mediation company that will evaluate each claim and determine the payment. You will submit documentation of your losses as part of that process. This evaluation and distribution process will be far simpler than a trial.
Q: How much work is involved in submitting a Proof of Claim form?
Very little. You will be asked to fill out and file a form called a Proof of Claim, which is simple. It must be submitted by December 31, 2019 or you will be barred from making any claim. If you are represented by an attorney, your attorney should fill out the form for you. Be sure to confirm that with your attorney via email and keep that email. Don’t worry if you don’t know the exact amount of your claim. Many of us don’t have our final rebuilding costs and are still incurring additional living expenses. None of us know how to put a dollar amount on lost trees and emotional distress. All that will be worked out as part of the trust administration process.
Q: Won’t PG&E employees and customers be hurt by the fire claims?
PG&E employees and customers may be hurt more if too many fire victims don’t file claims. Numbers count in the bankruptcy process. Eventually, a bankruptcy plan will be hammered out by the different creditor groups or may be subject to a vote. Wildfire victims could be the largest creditor group and largest voting bloc, but only if more people submit claims. If PG&E investors and insurance companies outvote us, then fire victims will suffer what is called a “cram-down” -- their plan will be crammed down our throats. If history is any indication, the investors and insurance companies will make huge profits at the expense of PG&E employees, customers, and wildfire victims.
Q: What about the Tubbs Fire? Is it worth bringing a claim?
Yes, absolutely. The Cal Fire report is not the last word of the cause of the Tubbs Fire. New evidence points the finger at PG&E equipment. The bankruptcy judge, Judge Dennis Montali, is permitting the cause of the Tubbs fire to go to trial. Most likely, the case will settle, but the prospect of a trial puts pressure on PG&E to make a decent offer to Tubbs fire victims. File your claim. You have nothing to lose.
Q: How do I decide which attorney to hire?
A firm with experience in mass tort litigation and bankruptcy.
A reasonable contingency fee (20% to 25%).
Someone who communicates well and responds to your emails.
Someone who is committed from start to finish. Is the firm on one of the bankruptcy committees? Do they have ties to the community? You don’t want to engage an attorney, then find out your case has been handed off to a Texas or San Diego firm or to an over-worked associate who can’t keep your name straight.
Will the attorney be engaging an arborist, business advisor, and other experts to help you prepare and support your claim? Not all firms are making this investment.
Do you like this person? Do you want him or her on your team? Personally, I prefer the more corporate type and cringe at flashy, aggressive PI attorneys.
You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by filing a claim against PG&E by the December 31, 2019 deadline. Plus, you will be doing something good for yourself and your community.