Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, said Monday that it had agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest wildfire.
California regulators determined last year that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire, which in 2018 engulfed the town of Paradise and led to the deaths of 85 people.
Facing tens of billions of dollars in wildfire claims, PG&E has been in bankruptcy reorganization since early last year. The company is racing to emerge from bankruptcy by June so that it can qualify for inclusion in a new state wildfire fund that could cover the costs of future fires.
The plea agreement, struck with the district attorney in the county where the Camp Fire occurred, followed the announcement on Friday that Gov. Gavin Newsom was willing to approve PG&E’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy. Under the plan, victims of the wildfires have agreed to a payment of $13.5 billion.
“Today’s charges underscore the reality of all that was lost,” Bill Johnson, PG&E’s chief executive, said in a statement, “and we hope that accepting those charges helps bring more certainty to the path forward so we can get victims paid fairly and quickly.”
The plea agreement, announced in a securities filing, said PG&E had accepted a maximum penalty of $3.5 million and “no other or additional sentence will be imposed on the utility in the criminal action in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire.” The company will also pay the district attorney’s office $500,000 to cover its investigation.
The agreement must be approved by a state court, which is scheduled to consider it on April 24, and the bankruptcy court.
Karen Gowins, who lost her home in the Camp Fire, criticized the plea agreement on Monday and said that the company may never be fully held to account.
“I don’t see this as a win for the victims no matter which way it all goes,” said Gowins, who is a member of a committee that represents wildfire victims in PG&E’s bankruptcy case. “Basically, they’re just going to slap them on the hand. I keep saying, ‘Only the Lord can open a door now.’”