Although Cal Fire says it may be months before it knows how the October wildfires started, lawyers from across the country are already courting fire victims in a high-stakes race to sign them up for what many believe will be a record payout. By comparison, San Diego Gas & Electric paid more than $2 billion for 2007 wildfires that destroyed more than 1,200 homes and killed two people. And PG&E faces more than $1 billion in claims after Cal Fire investigators found it responsible for the 2015 Butte fire, which destroyed 549 homes and also killed two people.
Gerald Singleton, a San Diego attorney who represents about 500 Napa and Sonoma county wildfire clients in two separate lawsuits, said damages in the Northern California fires could far exceed insurance claims, topping out at $20 billion.
“These fires will absolutely dwarf anything else,” Singleton said. “It will be the largest fire case that’s ever happened. Hopefully, there’ll never be anything bigger.”
He and other lawyers will help people recoup uninsured losses but also go after noneconomic damage, such as emotional distress from fleeing flames and the trauma of being displaced.
Individual settlements for those burned or killed could go into the millions, said another Southern California wildfire attorney, Jim Frantz, who is on a steering committee for lawsuits following the 2015 Porter Ranch natural gas leak outside Los Angeles. He compared North Bay fire lawsuits to litigation following the 2010 BP oil spill, which settled for $20.8 billion.
“It’s the largest man-made disaster in the United States,” Frantz said. “Porter Ranch was terrible. The BP oil spill was bad. This is worse. It’s taken people out of their homes. And the damages will be record-setting.”
The lawyers themselves will take between 33 and 40 percent of any money won in court, plus additional funds to cover their legal and investigative costs. Some charge more if a case goes to trial, billing up to $750 an hour for their time.
Fire victims now are facing an array of decisions as attorneys vie for their business. The State Bar of California warned the public to watch out for fraud, including people posing as lawyers and attorneys who make false promises or inappropriate solicitations.
Clients will be asked to sign agreements that authorize attorneys to file a claim on their behalf. The contracts detail how any money will be divided, who is responsible for the costs of litigation, and the rights of both client and attorney.
“Look closely at your contract,” said Santa Rosa attorney Roy Miller, who is representing several hundred wildfire cases with a team of lawyers. “People need to know what they are signing.”
Miller urges people to read the fine print for hidden escalator clauses that trigger larger shares for lawyers and can entitle lawyers to be paid even if they quit or get fired.
Court must establish liability
Before anyone gets a dime, a judge must establish liability for the fires that flared the night of Oct. 8. Dozens of lawsuits representing about 350 plaintiffs so far have been filed against PG&E, alleging the blaze was sparked by trees that fell onto poorly maintained power lines during high winds. The Tubbs fire — which became the most damaging wildfire in state history — raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, wiping out homes in Fountaingrove and Larkfield-Wikiup before jumping Highway 101 and leveling Coffey Park. All told, Sonoma County fires burned 137 square miles, destroyed 5,130 houses and killed 24 people.
This story originally appeared in The Press Democrat.
Know Your Rights
California law prohibits lawyers or others acting on behalf of a lawyer from:
— Soliciting clients at an accident scene, at a hospital, or on the way to a hospital.
— Soliciting clients who, due to their physical, emotional or mental state, may not be able to have reasonable judgment about the hiring of an attorney .
— Seeking clients by mail unless the letter and envelope are clearly labeled as an advertisement.
— Promising a particular outcome from legal representation.
In the wake of the fires, there is also the risk of victims being approached by people posing as attorneys. Consumers should determine if they are legitimate and licensed to provide legal services. Before hiring an attorney, look up their name or State Bar number on the State Bar website — www.calbar.ca.gov — to check the status of their license to practice law and whether they have any record of discipline.
Source: State Bar of California