Sunday, December 18, 2011

PG&E, victims' lawyers spar in court

Attorneys for victims of the PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno argued Friday that the utility's recent acceptance of legal responsibility for the deadly explosion is meaningless.

The attorneys, during a San Mateo County Superior Court hearing, said the admission is a narrow legalistic one that doesn't prohibit Pacific Gas & Electric from also blaming someone else for the explosion that killed eight people.

"Merely saying 'I accept responsibility' is vague," Frank Pitre, who represents some of the 360 victims to file suit, told Judge Steven Dylina. He went on to say that the utility could blame the still undetermined maker of the 30-inch diameter pipe that exploded or the fire department

for not immediately extinguishing the fire that destroyed 38 homes.

In legal papers filed ahead of Friday's hearing before Dylina, the utility's lawyers wrote: "PG&E agrees that its use of transmission pipe on Line 132 beginning in 1956 with a defective weld was negligent and this negligence was a proximate cause of the rupture of the pipe on September 9, 2010."

Utility attorney Gale Gough reiterated that position Friday when challenged by Pitre.

"We admit that we are negligent, that we are liable, that we will compensate (the victims)," she said. "We will pay the damage of these plaintiffs."

PG&E's effort to rehabilitate its image - and make its system safer - was also apparent during a tour of pipeline improvements given to reporters Friday.

New vice president of gas operations Nick Stavropolous showed off the nearly completed work to install the 19th and 20th valve on the Peninsula that can stop the flow of gas automatically or remotely. It took utility crews 90 minutes to arrive at valve stations and manually close them during the rupture in San Bruno.

"These can be shut down immediately," he said of the new valves on lines 109 and 132 at Larkspur Drive and Interstate 280 in Millbrae.

Back in court, PG&E's admission was lauded by Dylina, who congratulated the company on making a "major step forward."

"It may not have been climbing Mount Everest, but it was K2," he said.

But while speaking to reporters after the hearing, Pitre said his view differed from the judge's.

"It wasn't K2, it wasn't a small little molehill," he said. "It was nothing."

Despite the fireworks, the hearing did produce a framework for how to deal with the sprawling number and diversity of lawsuits. Because of the number of complaints - 92 individual lawsuits involving 140 households - it would take years to send them to trial one by one. So the victims will be divided into groups and a representative will go to trial for them.

Dylina said the cases will be split into four categories: Death, injury with more than $50,000 in medical bills, emotional distress and lesser injuries and finally people who lost their homes, but weren't present for the blast.

By Joshua Melvin,

Source: San Jose Mercury News

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