PG&E caused the disastrous Butte Fire when a gray pine tree fell across one of its power lines. This decision holds that the trial court erred in failing to grant PG&E summary judgment on the fire victims’ claims for punitive damages. An unsuccessful risk management policy does not necessarily reflect a conscious and willful company decision to ignore or disregard the risk. So proof that PG&E’s policies failed to prevent the Butte Fire isn’t enough to prove malice and justify a punitive damage award. There was no evidence that PG&E ignored warnings that its policies were ineffective in preventing fires nor that PG&E maliciously hired or delegated training to unqualified contractors to carry out tree trimming and removal to prevent fires. While PG&E may have a nondelegable duty to prevent fires, the nondelegable duty rule means that PG&E may be vicariously liable for compensatory damages arising from contractors’ negligence, irrespective of fault, it does not alter the analysis of liability for punitive damages under Civ. Code 3294.
California Court of Appeal, Third District (Renner, J.); July 2, 2018; 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 603