San Bruno residents question PG&E's liability claim in pipeline blast

The utility company responsible for last year’s deadly pipeline explosion on a quiet suburban street in San Bruno announced Tuesday it’s claiming financial liability.

However, residents affected by the blast say that’s not enough, and many still think PG&E needs to pay for what it did to the neighborhood. Residents said they plan to hold the company responsible for punitive damages by pursuing their original lawsuits.

PG&E Co. President Chris Johns said in a statement that he hopes the announcement will allow affected families to “receive compensation sooner, without unnecessary legal proceedings.”

“We are affirming our commitment to do the right thing in our response to this accident,” Johns said.

The announcement Tuesday comes as company attorneys prepare for a hearing regarding more than 90 civil lawsuits filed against PG&E in San Mateo County court.

A trial date has been set for July 23, 2012, but attorneys for the plaintiffs and the San Francisco-based company are still trying to bring the various lawsuits to trial as a group.

The National Transportation Safety Board in August blamed the utility for the blast following a yearlong investigation. The board condemned PG&E for a “litany of failures” that led to the Sept. 9, 2010, incident. On that day, a 30-inch pipeline exploded, creating a firestorm that killed eight people and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

The extent of the damage is one reason the July trial and lawsuits will remain, said attorney Frank Pitre, who is representing victims. Other reasons, Pitre said, include PG&E’s conduct and decisions it made leading up to the blast.

“They ignored that they had a defective pipe in the ground and placed profit over safety,” Pitre said. “Even if PG&E admits it is at fault, it doesn’t change one iota of what will be on trial in July.”

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said Tuesday that PG&E’s actions will speak louder than the company’s words.

“Chris Johns told me he was assuming full responsibility and liability for the incident,” Ruane said. “He wants to make residents and this city whole. Only time will tell, but hopefully it will be a lot shorter this time.”

Bill Magoolaghan, who lived on Claremont Drive and whose home was uninhabitable for more than a year after the blast, said PG&E’s admission is not enough. He said it is a ploy to not be held liable in the criminal sense.

“They’re shifting the burden to us to make us prove we should get punitive damages,” Magoolaghan said. “It’s a game.”


Previous compensation

In the days after the San Bruno blast, PG&E promised to set aside $100 million in a “Rebuild San Bruno” fund to provide assistance to the community, which is separate from residents’ lawsuits. About one-third of that had been paid out as of September.

$7M Paid to residents for property damage and medical bills

$5M Paid to programs focused on rebuilding

$21M Paid to the city of San Bruno and other government agencies

$33M Total paid out so far

Source: PG&E